Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Keanu Kraze: 47 Ronin

Say what you will about Keanu Reeves’ acting abilities, he’s made some genuinely good movies. John Wick, Speed, The Matrix, Point Break.

And then there’s 47 Ronin, a puzzling hodgepodge of a movie. The 2013 film cost a bundle to make, and FLOPPED hugely. It’s a classic example of a good concept getting shot in the foot due to extensive studio interference. It was such a box-office bomb that Wikipedia lists it as the second-most expensive box-office bomb EVER. And that’s adjusted for inflation, unadjusted, it’s number one.

Wow. A movie that bombed so hard must be absolute crap, right? Well…not exactly. The film is a mixed bag, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you might expect.

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The movie tells a heavily fictionalized version of the real forty-seven Ronin, which was an actual historical event. That the film’s version of this story is fictional is pretty obvious from the opening narration, which claims that ancient feudal Japan was “A group of magical islands home to witches and demons.” Um, okay.

Keanu plays Kai, a half-Japanese, half-English outcast, who is shunned by his fellow samurai due to his mixed ancestry. He was also raised in the woods by demons, who taught him to fight and gave him superpowers.

Tellingly, the character of Kai is not present at all in the actual story of the forty-seven Ronin. He was invented completely for the film, I guess because Universal studios wanted a recognizable Hollywood actor.

But Reeves’ character still feels shoehorned into the story, since it would have been entirely possible to tell it without him. 47 Ronin was supposed to come out in 2012 but was pushed back to 2013 to incorporate time for re-shoots, which were done because Universal wanted Reeves to have more of a presence in the movie. This included giving him more dialogue scenes and also added a love story involving his character. Sorry guys, but it didn’t work, since Keanu’s character still feels unnecessary.

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He’s more of a side character. The real driving force behind the story is Oishi, who is driven to avenge the death of his lord, who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after being bewitched by the evil Lord Kira and his henchwoman, an evil sorceress.

Much like Reeves’ character, the movie as a whole is something of a half-breed (and also like Reeves’ character, it was largely shunned upon release). It can never decide if it wants to be a gritty historical swords-and-sandals epic (like Gladiator or Braveheart) or more of a fantasy romp (leaning more towards The Lord of the Rings).

This is again due to interference on the part of the studio. From what I’ve read, the film’s director, Carl Rinsch, wanted a more realistic, gritty approach to the film, while Universal wanted a fantasy epic. The finished movie ends up being some of both and a lot of neither. The rumor was that Rinsch was kicked out of the editing room during post-production, and therefore didn’t have much of a say on the film’s final cut.

It’s really too bad, since the actual story is great, but the film’s version of it is so watered-down it becomes hard to care about the outcome. The main problem from a story perspective is that of the titular 47 Ronin, only two of them have any personality or character development, like, at all. Those are Kai and Oishi, and of those two, only Oishi feels actually necessary to the plot.

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Fortunately, Oishi is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, a very talented actor (known to Western audiences for his role as a gangster in The Wolverine) who gives Oishi a real sense of humanity and determination. The rest of the movie doesn’t live up to his drive.

Also contributing to the weird feel of the movie is that fact that it’s in English. Yeah, I get it, Americans are lazy and don’t want to read subtitles, but in 47 Ronin what you get is a lot of very Japanese-looking people speaking very heavily-accented English, which brings to mind all of those badly-dubbed kung fu movies from the 70’s and 80’s. And it’s not that the film’s dubbing is bad per se (the words coming out of the characters’ mouths do at least match up with the movements of their lips) but it doesn’t sound right. You keep wondering why these people are speaking English, and as a result you’re distracted and not focusing on the actual movie.

And this brings us to the end of the movie. At the end, (spoilers obviously), all of the 47 Ronin (or at least the ones who weren’t bumped off earlier) are sentenced to commit seppuku by the shogun for having disobeyed his earlier order to not take revenge against Kira for the death of their master. So, yeah, the movie ends with the main characters committing suicide. That sucks. And what sucks even more is that only TWO of them have any personality, so you don’t give a crap about the other forty-five. It feels anticlimactic to say the least, and the lack of character development robs the movie’s ending of much of its impact.

But as sloppy as the story is, there are good things about the film. For one thing, it looks GREAT. The costume and set designs are top notch. Every character looks amazing and authentic, and the costumes in particular give the movie a vibrant color palette that makes it great to look at.

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The special effects are also quite good (the $175 million budget had to go somewhere) and the action scenes are well-shot and choreographed. There are some great sword fights and the final battle scene is viscerally satisfying. Keanu gets to fight a dragon, which looks cool even if it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

And since we’re on the subject of stuff that looks cool, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Lovecraftian Samurai. The Lovecraftian Samurai is a hulking brute of a henchman who looks really freaking cool. He’s sadly underused (big surprise) but he looks absolutely badass. He’s actually not a CGI character, he’s played by an absurdly tall English guy in a sweet costume. CGI may have been used to enhance the character but there is an actual guy in there. The character’s name is never given in the movie, he’s listed in the credits as Lovedraftian Samurai, although I really have no idea why, since as far as I know H.P. Lovecraft never wrote about the cosmic existential horror of seven-and-a-half-foot tall samurai warriors. I do love the phrase “Lovecraftian Samurai” though.

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47 Ronin is worth seeing for fans of quirky and bizarre cinema. Given all of the studio interference and the film’s jumbled tone, it’s not too surprising that it was such a flop. It is too bad that the story didn’t get better treatment though, since it’s a fantastic story and the fact that it’s based on actual historical events is pretty mind-blowing. Overall, 47 Ronin feels like a wasted opportunity with a few bright spots that ultimately aren’t enough to elevate the film above the level of a cinematic curiosity.

The Curse of the Misleading Trailer

How many times have you seen a really good movie trailer, only to be let down by the actual movie?

The problem is that the purpose of a movie’s trailer is to sell the audience on the movie. It is not necessarily intended to accurately represent the movie.

This can be a problem because it can affect what you actually think of the movie itself. It’s really too bad when the trailer kills the movie, but in some cases it’s hard to think of how it could have turned out otherwise.

Take, for example, three recent would-be swords-and-sandals epics. The movies I’m going to be talking about to illustrate this point are Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood, and Brett Ratner’s 2014 Hercules.

Let’s start at the beginning. Fuqua’s King Arthur has virtually nothing to do with the legend of King Arthur as most people are familiar with it. There is no sword in the stone, no quest for the Holy Grail, no love story between Lancelot and Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, no Mordred, none of that.

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This isn’t automatically a problem, mind you. I don’t mind people putting a new spin on a familiar story. The problem with all three of these films is that their trailers and titles all promise things that the movies themselves fail to deliver, even though the movies aren’t necessarily all that bad (another good title for this post would have been The Curse of the Misleading Title, but I thought The Curse of the Misleading Trailer had a better ring to it).

When you hear the phrase “King Arthur,” what are some of the first things you think of? Chances are they include some of the things I mentioned above. It’s somewhat galling that a movie called King Arthur has almost nothing to do with the King Arthur stories that most people are familiar with. I don’t even think Arthur is a king for most of the movie. Merlin is just some forest wizard who does almost nothing, Lancelot freaking dies at the end of the movie and has almost no relationship with Guinevere, the list goes on and on.

The thing is that Fuqua’s film isn’t necessarily all that bad, but it most certainly does not live up to its title. Maybe it would be slightly easier to take if it had been called something different, but this leads to my second point: what the hell else were the filmmakers supposed to call it? It’s a swords-and-sandals epic about a dude named Arthur and his pals, some of whom just so happen to be named Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, Galahad, and so on. So sure, call the movie King Arthur and that ought to put asses in seats. The obvious problem is that you’re setting yourself up for a fall when you (rather brazenly, in the case of King Arthur, since the movie claims to be a true story and, you know, isn’t) don’t deliver on the audience’s expectations.

The same holds true for Ridley Scott’s 2010 version of Robin Hood. When you hear “Robin Hood,” what do you think of? Robbing the rich to give to the poor, duh. Guess how much of that there is in Scott’s film? Yep, you guessed it: virtually none.

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Instead, the movie is an origin story, telling how Robin, Marion, Little John, etc. all came to be living in Sherwood Forest and hunted by famous douchebag King John. The original script of Scott’s film actually began with the title Nottingham, and portrayed a more sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham as the main protagonist. From what I’ve read about it, the script portrayed the Sheriff of Nottingham as a CSI-style forensics investigator, torn between his duty to serve the king (who was corrupt) and his sympathies for the outlaw he was supposed to catch.

I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like a hell of a good movie right there. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott himself apparently didn’t think so, and filming was delayed while the script was rewritten. It’s really too bad, because the resulting film’s story, while not terrible, is nowhere near as interesting.

Again, I wouldn’t call it a bad film, but it most certainly does not live up to the expectations its title and marketing suggest. But again, what else would (or should) the film have been called? Calling the film Robin Hood should put some asses in seats, but it’s hard to blame the people those asses belong to for leaving the theater unsatisfied.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? You should, because it continues with Brett Ratner’s Dwayne Johnson-starring Hercules, which was released last year.

Brett Ratner is kind of a sleaze (I mean, he does have the word “rat” in his name), who has one of the most punchable faces I’ve ever seen. I mean, look at this face. Don’t you just want to punch it after looking at it for more than two seconds?

the most punchable face in the universe

Gah, so punchable. I feel kind of bad for saying that I liked his film more than the previous two, (and it feels especially weird saying that I liked a Brett Ratner film more than a Ridley Scott film, that’s not something I ever thought I would find myself saying), but it’s true. Fuqua’s King Arthur and Scott’s Robin Hood are both so relentlessly dour (not to mention overlong) that, while I still don’t think they’re terrible, they aren’t always very much fun. Ratner’s film, at least, is more consistently entertaining. As Alfred so wisely told Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, “Who knows? If you start pretending to have fun, you might even have a little by accident.”

So, here comes the first inevitable question. When I say “Hercules,” what do you think of? You probably think of the twelve labors, gods and monsters, that sort of thing. And here’s the second inevitable question: how much of these elements do you think Ratner’s film has? If you were to say “not very much,” then congratulations, you’re right.

Ratner’s Hercules is basically a mercenary with really good PR. He’s the guy who does all the hard jobs that no one else will do (although he doesn’t do them by himself, he’s the guy who gets all the credit for it), and he has a really good PR guy who spins tales of his legendary deeds.

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He becomes involved in a plot by a couple of douchey kings played by John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes, and the movie portrays him as a character separated from magic and mysticism. The whole point of the movie is that all of the things that people think of as being magical (centaurs, the hydra, and the like) turn out to be nothing but people (or just really mean animals, such as the Nemean Lion).

I kind of like this approach, to be honest. I love the idea of events becoming legends (such as in The Road Warrior) and Ratner’s Hercules taps into this. Not as well as The Road Warrior obviously, but the ideas are certainly there. The main problem with Hercules was the trailer, which hyped up the twelve labors of Hercules (such as the hydra and the Nemean Lion), and made it seem as if that was what the whole movie would be about.

But in the actual movie, all of those big trailer moments (the lion lunging at Hercules, chopping the heads off the Hydra) happen in the first five minutes, and are later revealed to not have been everything they were cracked up to be.

I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but can you blame the people who may have left the theater unsatisfied? Not really. How else could the movie have been marketed? What else could it have been called? I dunno. The whole situation is a bit of a Catch-22.

It’s not that surprising that movie marketing is frequently misleading, advertisements are misleading all the time. There’s always a relationship between the consumer’s expectations of a product and the ability of that product to deliver on those expectations, and sometimes it skews dramatically one way or the other. Generally, when a product doesn’t do what it says it will do, it’s a bad product.

But it’s different with movies. A movie can maybe not fulfill all of your expectations, and yet you may still end up liking it to some degree. Such was the case for me, with all three of the films I’ve mentioned here.

So the next time you see a movie that wasn’t quite what you expected it to be, maybe try asking yourself: Okay, what did the movie do that I liked? Were there things about it that were really good that I wasn’t expecting?

I love movies, and I want other people to love them too. I guess that if there’s one thing writing this post has made clear to me, it’s that there is more than one way to like something, not just movies. So I guess what I’m saying is, try keeping an open mind and who knows, you just might end up surprising yourself.

What Do the Entrails Say?

Sometimes, there are warning signs. Sometimes, all it takes is a few minutes into a film to let you know you’re in trouble.

In Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, that warning sign came less than five minutes into the film, when the pharaoh asks one of his advisers the soon-to-be-immortal question: “What do the entrails say?”

Yup. That line came less than five minutes into a 150-minute long film. I had to rewind it to make sure I had heard it correctly, which I had. And, just as the pharaoh’s adviser tells him, the entrails are unclear, but some stuff might happen that you won’t like very much. At this point (again, less than five minutes into a two and a half hour movie) I figured that that was a pretty good prediction as to what my feelings would be like about the movie as a whole: unclear, but definitely leaning towards the negative.

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Urgh. Exodus had all the ingredients to be good, so how did it go so spectacularly bad? Ridley Scott has been in a bit of a rut post-Gladiator, but he’s still an important filmmaker, and he has proven success directing historical epics. Christian Bale is widely acknowledged to be one of the best actors around. The movie tells a well-known Biblical story that most people, regardless of their religious views, are pretty familiar with. The cast also included Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver.

And yet, almost nothing in the movie works.

The story is a confusing mess.

The relationships between the characters are thin to nonexistent.

Sigourney Weaver has maybe three lines, all of which are delivered in a flat American accent, which sound totally out of place.

And, worst of all, the movie has no idea what so freaking ever what to do with God.

I just…it just…urgh. Look, the filmmakers made some choices in this film that were utterly baffling to me.

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Why, for example, would they choose to portray God as a, like, eight-year-old-child? Every time Moses (played by Bale, if you didn’t already know that) talks to God, he’s talking to a freaking little kid. I cannot fathom why the filmmakers thought this was a good idea. Literally anything would have been better. Have him talking to a disembodied voice. Have him talking to a ghostly figure of some sort. Have him talking to, I don’t know, a grown-up human being for crying out loud. But why in pluperfect hell would have him arguing with a child? And, even more inexplicably, why would you make it so that Moses is the only one who can see him, which results in scenes where Moses’ brother Aaron is spying on Moses, and it looks like Moses is just arguing with himself?

AND TO TOP IT ALL OFF, why would you make Moses and God have an antagonistic relationship with each other? I always thought that God worked through Moses, the movie makes them practically look like enemies. I get that people’s relationships with God are complicated. I get that. But making Moses and God enemies (maybe frenemies? I don’t even know) just makes no sense from a storytelling perspective.

Moses starts training the Israelites to become like this guerrilla army, and then Kid-God shows up and tells him he’s not doing enough, and that’s what starts the ten plagues. So all those scenes of Moses training his guerrilla army (which were meant to be all inspirational) add up to a whole lot of NOTHING.

The relationships between the characters are also incredibly poorly developed. Moses has almost no connection to anyone else in the movie. He has no reason to want to return to Egypt after his exile, aside from a few vague hints from Kid-God, and every time Moses says something about helping his “people,” or entreating them repeatedly that “God is with us,” it just rings absolutely hollow. The Israelites have no reason to follow him, and he has no reason to want them to.

And he has almost no relationship with either Joshua or Aaron, both important Biblical figures. It’s only even mentioned in passing that Moses and Aaron are brothers. I didn’t even know which person was Aaron and which was Joshua! There were these two guys I knew were Aaron and Joshua, but I could never tell which was which, and with the miniscule amount of character development either of them had they might as well have been the same person anyway.

None of this, in my opinion, is the fault of Christian Bale. Bale is an extremely expressive actor, capable of conveying worlds of meaning with just a look from his eyes. He does what he can with an extremely underwritten character, and while I did like Moses individually, it was not enough for me to care about the rest of the characters in the movie, since he has so little connection to any of them.

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The movie looks great, I can give it that. The sets, costumes, and special effects are all top-notch, and I especially liked the very cool-looking swords that Moses and Ramses use. You can tell that some serious money went into making this film, and, visually at least, it shows. The movie looks fantastic, and the scenes depicting the ten plagues are intense and frightening, and kinda gross. Oddly, by my count the movie only showed nine plagues, though I looked that up and the only one the movie leaves out is lice, and to be honest I forgot that lice were one of the ten plagues, so I guess I can kind of give them a pass for that.

Then again, no. No, I can’t. There were ten plagues of Egypt and the movie only shows nine. No pass for you, movie. The movie has four (credited) screenwriters, and apparently none of them can count.

Look, Hollywood. I appreciate the gesture, but seriously: you’re doing it wrong. For further proof, look at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was also released last year. In addition to being the year of Scarlett Johansson, 2014 was also supposed to be the Year of the Biblical Epic. But after having seen both Exodus and Noah, I can officially say that it was the Year of the Severely Underwhelming Biblical Epic.

I disliked Noah even more than I disliked Exodus, which as you can probably tell is really saying something. I don’t really have all that much to say about Noah, except it suffered from a lot of the same problems as Exodus: weak characterization, muddled story, baffling storytelling decisions.

Oh, and for some reason, it was full of Rock Transformers.

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Wait, what? I didn’t think this Biblical epic was directed by Michael Bay. Noah is full of these weird creatures called Watchers that were supposed to be fallen angels, but I kept thinking of them as Rock Transformers because they looked like Transformers made out of rocks. One of them is even voiced by Nick Nolte of all people, and let me just say that Nick freaking Nolte is the absolute last person in the universe that I would ever expect to play an angel in a movie. A demon, sure (he certainly sounds like one), but an angel? Hell no!

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Tellingly, the Rock Transformers did not appear in ANY of the trailers or marketing for the movie. The marketing team must have thought, “Hey, what the hell are these Michael Bay rejects doing in this Biblical movie? Eh, I dunno, just leave them out of the trailers, nobody will notice.”

The main problem with the movie Noah is that the Biblical story of Noah is pretty straightforward. The Biblical story of Exodus is more detailed, but Noah’s story really isn’t. God tells Noah to build the ark and put two of every animal on it. Noah does so, God destroys the world with a flood, the animals on the ark and Noah and his family survive. That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. But, of course, that’s not enough for a full-length movie, so the filmmakers embellished quite a bit. And all of their embellishments, to me, felt like really weak attempts to add drama to the story, and half of them just don’t make any sense.

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How else do you explain Noah’s behavior in the last hour of the movie? For some utterly inexplicable reason, Noah spends most of the movie thinking that mankind is supposed to die off, so he spends most of the last hour of the movie trying to murder pregnant Emma Watson.

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I, it, just, WHAT??? Why is Noah a slasher-movie villain for the whole third act of the movie??? It’s just baffling. And then at the end of the movie, Noah gets blackout drunk and his kids find him passed out naked on the beach. And this guy is supposed to be the hero of this story?

Both Noah and Exodus do have a couple of specific scenes that I liked. The parting of the Red Sea sequence in Exodus is an exciting setpiece, and I liked the scenes in Noah that showed the animals coming on to the ark.

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They’re both great-looking movies, but the visuals aren’t enough to hide the emptiness that lies within both of these big-budget films. One of the reviews I read online said that Exodus was like a chocolate cake filled with sawdust, which I thought was a perfect metaphor: looks great, empty on the inside.

Look, I’m not a person who bases their system of beliefs on Hollywood movies. I don’t dislike these movies because they don’t exactly align with my own beliefs. I dislike them because their storytelling is muddled, the characterizations range from thin to nonexistent to downright baffling, and neither one of them has the slightest idea what to do with God.

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What do the entrails say? It’s unclear, but it’s not looking good.

99 Problems But A Dragon Ain’t One

It is a truth universally acknowledged that dragons are awesome.

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I mean, what’s not awesome about dragons? They’re giant, winged, fire-breathing lizards. They may or may not have two heads.

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They are pretty much automatically the best thing about whatever they are in.

Such is the case with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s second installment in the Hobbit trilogy that everybody everywhere except for greedy movie studio executives agrees should have been one movie instead of three.

It is extremely apparent in Desolation of Smaug (I’m going to call it TDOS for short) that a 300-page book does NOT need to made into three movies that are all nearly three hours long. Again, this is something that is immediately obvious to everyone except movie studio executives, whose eyes probably turned into dollar signs at the prospect of another Tolkien-based trilogy. Admittedly, it worked, since both of the first two movies made about a billion dollars apiece.

I’m not going to go into the plot much, because somehow there is way too much of it, and at the same time there is really none at all. The movie is 161 minutes long, and by the end of it I felt hard-pressed to really recall anything important that had happened.

Much is made of the Arkenstone and the King Under the Mountain and there are elves and orcs all over the place, but I found it really hard to care about any of it.

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The problem is that the movie really doesn’t give you enough reason to care about any of it. We all already know how the Lord of the Rings saga plays out, and it is just really really hard to give much of a crap about a bunch of dwarves. Let’s face it, dwarves are kind of boring. There are too many of them, their names are too similar, and it is difficult to care about them individually. The movie tries to get you to care, but for me it just didn’t work. Why is the dwarf-quest important? I dunno, and the movie doesn’t really seem to know either.

But hey, what about that dragon right?

Admittedly, the dragon is awesome. I would have included him on my annual villain round-up, but I hadn’t seen the movie when I wrote that so Smaug was not included. Well, consider him retroactively included, because the filmmakers did a fantastic job bringing Smaug to life in the movie.

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He looks great and he sounds great. Benedict Cumberbatch (who also played one of my other favorite villains in 2013) voiced a pretty awesome dragon. He moves how you would imagine a massive winged beast would move and he has a real sense of size and scale. His fire-breathing is so cool you might be afraid you’ll get singed. Every movie dragon should be this badass.

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The entire movie is a technical triumph, really. Everything in it looks and sounds pretty much flawless. The special effects, costumes, sets, makeup, etc. are all absolutely top-notch.

It really is a shame that they are all in service of a story that feels so insubstantial. A lot of stuff happens in the movie, but to me it ultimately felt like a whole lot of nothing, the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy: nice enough while it lasts, but quickly fades.

The movie is watchable enough, I suppose.  There’s plenty of eye candy, but Peter Jackson seems to have forgotten the story in service of the spectacle. The first Hobbit movie had many of the same flaws as this one, but ultimately I found it to be much more compelling than the second one. It also had the advantage of Gollum, whose scene with Bilbo was a highlight of the movie.

The acting is good, but the two most compelling characters (Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Martin Freeman as Bilbo) don’t get enough to do in TDOS. It’s mostly just dwarves. Orlando Bloom also shows up as Legolas, who does pretty much nothing but kick ass. Seriously, he’s fighting in pretty much every scene he’s in, which is cool and all, but beyond that, there’s no real reason for him to be in the movie.

The action sequences are exciting, I really liked the scene where the dwarves are floating down the river in barrels and being attacked by orcs, but the climactic Smaug battle that takes up much of the last 30-45 minutes of the movie certainly looks great (unsurprisingly) but it goes on too long. It’s full of clanking gears and vats of molten metal and great gouts of flames and conveniently placed chains dangling from the ceiling, but the sense of spatial awareness is off and it is hard to tell where things are in relation to each other, which makes it hard to follow what is even going on.

After spending 2 hours and 41 minutes watching the movie, I did not expect to feel so underwhelmed. And what the hell is even left for a third movie? I’m deluding myself if I say I’m not going to see the third movie, because of course I am at some point or another, but I’m not going to be counting down the days till its release.

Oh, well. At least dragons will never stop being cool.

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Prepare for Gory!!

I think that any review of 300: Rise of An Empire can best be summed up as follows: if you liked the first movie, you will like the new one. If you didn’t, you won’t. It really is that simple.

So thanks for joining me here at the Zombie Room, I’ll see you all next time!

Haha, no, just kidding.

Amazingly, it’s been eight years since 300 came out and became a surprise hit in 2006, kickstarting the careers of Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, and director Zack Snyder. Most people are probably familiar with the name Gerard Butler, which is 100% due to 300 (he went on to squander his newfound name recognition by appearing in a whole bunch of completely forgettable movies since then). Lena Headey went on to play the duplicitous queen Cersei in Game of Thrones, and Zack Snyder went on to direct Watchmen and Man of Steel (and Sucker Punch, but the less said of that one, the better).

And who doesn’t know lines like “Tonight we dine in hell!” and “THIS. IS. SPARTA!!!” even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably heard those lines. They’ve become part of the landscape of popular culture, frequently parodied but never quite equaled.

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It was also a very divisive movie. Some people loved it, some people hated it. And I have to say, both reactions are entirely valid.

The movie is full of stylized visuals, over-the-top acting, slow-motion blood-splattering, and lines of dialogue just begging to be quoted and parodied.

And abs. Can’t forget those abs.

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You either like this kind of thing, or you don’t. Love it or hate it, chances are you probably remember it.

Personally, I dig it. I like the stylized visuals, the alternately sped-up and slowed-down battle scenes, and the sort of heightened sense of realism that pervades the movie. It’s a manly, badass movie, and I always watching it. It never fails to get me fired up.

People say it’s cheesy. Yes, it is. But I don’t mind.

People say it’s not historically accurate. Well, it’s based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, so it probably isn’t very historically accurate. But I don’t mind.

People say it’s one-sided, and that it portrays the Spartans as heroic and awesome and the Persians as pure evil. Absolutely true. 300 is a film with pretty much zero subtlety. But I don’t mind.

People say the acting is over-the-top. Also true. But it’s not entirely dissimilar from something like, say The Avengers. The acting in that one is also pretty over-the-top, if you think about it. But if you think about it some more, that starts to make perfect sense. The Avengers is a movie where a billionaire with a flying suit of armor, a scientist who turns into a monster, the Norse god of thunder, and a couple of secret agents whose base is on a flying aircraft carrier band together to battle an army of aliens led by the Norse trickster god.

Sounds pretty ridiculous when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Of course it does, since none of that could ever happen in real life, because real life is boring.

What I’m saying is that when the situation is heightened, the style needs to be heightened. 300 does this perfectly. So I don’t mind the hammy acting. In my opinion, it suits the movie perfectly.

The point of that whole discussion was to emphasize how similar the experience of watching the original movie is to the experience of watching the sequel, and how similar the movies themselves are.

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Stylized visuals? Check.

Over-the-top acting? Check.

Slow-mo blood splatter? Check.

Lack of subtlety? Check.

Abs? Check.

If you liked all of these things in the first movie, you will like them here. If you didn’t, you should probably see something else.

The sequel follows two main characters. The first is Themistokles, an Athenian general and strategic genius.

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Themistokles is played by Sullivan Stapleton, an Australian actor who plays one of the main characters in one of my favorite TV shows, Strike Back. I could go on for a while about how awesome Strike Back is. If you love action movies like I do, you owe it to yourself to check out Strike Back, every ten-episode season is like five two-part action movies. I love it so much.

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But I digress. Stapleton’s experience in Strike back gave him two very important skills, both of which come in handy in 300: Rise of An Empire.

Those two skills are as follows:

Skill number one: kicking ass.

Skill number two: scoring with the ladies.

The film’s other main character is Artemisia, played by Bond girl Eva Green, who is officially the Zombie Room’s Best Villain of 2014 So Far (both of those skills will come in handy with her, if you know what I mean. Wink, wink).

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She’s scary, sexy, and awesome. Artemisia is the commander of Xerxes’ army, and Eva Green effortlessly pulls off all the things this character needs in order to work. It makes sense that, despite being Greek by birth, she hates the Greeks enough to lead a huge army against them. It makes sense that she’s smart enough to handle being in command of an entire army, and it’s plausible that she’s so fearsome and badass an army of men wouldn’t hesitate to do what she says.

I guess you could say that the movie is maybe a bit more balanced than its predecessor, since it spends a fair amount of time giving background to Artemisia, and shows some of the events that happened prior to the events of the first movie (like the battle of Marathon). It’s kind of a quasi-sequel in that sense, since some of it takes place before or during the first movie, although most of it takes place afterwards.

But enough about characters and story and background! How’s the action? How’s the badassery? Is there as much carnage as the first one?

The answer to that last question is a resounding yes. I think it’s safe to say the overall quantity of blood spilled in this movie easily tops that of the first movie.

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This is a movie where every slash, every stab, even every punch and kick produces great gouts of thick red blood. To be honest, it almost looks less like blood and more like strawberry jam. The overall effect is kind of cartoonish. But the numerous battles are well-staged and choreographed, and suitably badass.

The movie wasn’t directed by Zack Snyder, but new director Noam Murro emulates Snyder’s style so closely that it may as well have been. As with all things 300, this is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

I don’t really have a whole lot more to say about the movie. If you liked the first one, you should see the sequel. I’m fully aware that both 300 movies are from perfect. They do have many flaws, although most of those flaws don’t really bother me. I enjoy them for what they are, which is entertainment. They’re not good history. They’re not in any way subtle. But they are full of spectacle, and sometimes a little good old-fashioned spectacle is really all you need.

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And Eva Green. Every movie could benefit by having her in it. Later this year she’ll star in another adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel, as the titular dame in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, so keep an eye out for that.

Hehehe, I love the word “titular.” It sounds dirty but totally isn’t. My inner 12 year-old insists I use it as much as possible.

Hehe. “Titular.”