Review – 300: Rise Of An Empire

Beware Greeks bearing swords, especially when they’re as testosterone-fuelled as the cast of this gleefully gory festival of brutal CGI-baked bloodletting.

300: Rise Of An Empire makes no apologies for itself and asks little of its audience other than to wallow in its tidal wave of blood and entrails. If you're after anything else you'd best look elsewhere

300: Rise Of An Empire makes no apologies for itself and asks little of its audience other than to wallow in its tidal wave of blood and entrails. If you’re after anything else you’d best look elsewhere

Comic books have provided a rich vein of material for filmmakers over the years, although the explosion of big budget movies involving Batman, Superman, Iron Man and Thor et al in recent times has reached near epidemic levels.

Alongside the big names of the Marvel and DC universes that have gone before the cameras are equally beloved titles, most notably from the pen and pencil of the revered Frank Miller. In 2005, a collection of Miller’s hugely acclaimed Sin City stories was directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller himself (with a helping hand from Quentin Tarantino) and was noteworthy for being one of the first fully digital live action films.

The starting point - sort of - of 300: Rise Of An Empire

The starting point – sort of – of 300: Rise Of An Empire

It made the film look, for all intents and purposes, like a live action graphic novel and a similar visual approach was adopted by Zack Snyder for his 2006 adaptation of Miller’s 300, in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads his 300 Spartans into battle against the vastly superior forces of the invading Persian armies, led by the ‘God King’ Xerxes.

That film’s enormous success has inevitably led to 300: Rise Of An Empire that, while not directed by Snyder, might as well have been judging by its identical style. If anything, director Noam Murro has gone even further, throwing in curious tricks like the incessant and distracting floating dust that permeates nearly every frame.

War!! 'God-King' Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) rallies the Persians in 300: Rise Of An Empire

War!! ‘God-King’ Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) rallies the Persians in 300: Rise Of An Empire

This follow-up is a sequel of sorts, taking place before, during and after the fateful Battle of Thermopylae that was the centrepiece of 300. Sizeable chunks of the film are given over to exposition-heavy narration which establishes how the events of 300 came to pass. At the Battle of Marathon, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) witnesses his father Darius’ death at the hands of Greek General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and is goaded into annihilating the Greeks by Darius’ bloodthirsty naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green).

Artemisia has her own reasons for wanting the Greeks to be wiped out and leads the entire Persian navy into war against the Greek fleet, led by Themistocles. Although vastly outnumbered the Greeks fight on, not only for their families, but also for their way of life.

Heroic Greek leader Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) in 300: Rise Of An Empire

Heroic Greek leader Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) in 300: Rise Of An Empire

By sticking so slavishly to 300‘s super-stylised visual palette, Rise Of An Empire loses a lot of its forebear’s impact, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t water the eyes with a series of shamelessly over-the-top battle scenes.

Set on  water for large chunks, the film does an effective job of showing large-scale naval warfare, while the swordplay is even more brutal than its predecessor, with limbs being lopped off and CGI blood spraying around so readily it beats you into submission.

The vengeful Artemesia (Eva Green) in 300: Rise Of An Empire

The vengeful Artemesia (Eva Green) in 300: Rise Of An Empire

Anyone looking for depth will find none here (Snyder co-wrote the script, which should tell you all you need to know), but then this is 300: Rise Of An Empire we’re talking about here and anyone who watched 300 will know what to expect.

The acting is of secondary importance; Stapleton is no Butler (not a phrase I thought I’d ever use), but Green deserves credit for giving a performance of such scenery chewing madness you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d been let out on day release. This isn’t a film that does anything by half and that also goes for the comically absurd sex scene involving Artemisia and Themistocles – illustrated by the glance exchanged by two guards stood outside.

300: Rise Of An Empire makes no apologies for itself and asks little of its audience other than to wallow in its tidal wave of blood and entrails. If you’re after anything else you’d best look elsewhere.

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Review – Man Of Steel

The superhero’s superhero is back, but not as we’ve seen him before, in Zack Snyder’s earnest origin story that strives to put the king-daddy of comic books back on his throne.

There's enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let's hope there's more fun next time around

There’s enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let’s hope there’s more fun next time around

While his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding locomotive naturally lend themselves to incredible set pieces, Superman as a character has always been tricky to build a movie around. His intrinsic capacity for good is far less dramatic than the dark, brooding of Batman, for instance, or the cocksure machismo of Iron Man.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to sending his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to send his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Uninspiring action sequences, a lacklustre plot and an over-extended running time sank Supes’ last cinematic outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, so the challenge was on to rediscover the magic of 1978’s Superman and make him relevant to a modern day audience.

The news that Man Of Steel would be ‘A Zack Snyder Film’ was hardly a great start. Since his highly watchable 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, the quality of Snyder’s output has diminished further with each new release, to the extent that his most recent film, 2011’s Sucker Punch was virtually unwatchable.

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel's best moments

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel’s best moments

Although the presence of Batman alumnus Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer as, respectively, producer and screenwriter can be felt, there’s no mistaking this is a Snyder movie, which means stylised violence delivered at an ear-bleeding volume.

Taking the character back to his roots, Man Of Steel begins at the moment of his birth on a dying Krypton. His father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) manage to launch the spacecraft carrying Kal-El before maniacal rebel General Zod (Michael Shannan) is able to get his hands on the child. Crash-landing on Earth, he’s raised by honest-to-goodness farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark. When Clark starts to develop super-human powers, his alien lineage is revealed to him by his father, who warns of the need to keep his abilities a secret for fear that a confused, frightened society would reject him. However, when Zod and his followers arrive years later demanding that Earth surrender Kal-El or suffer the consequences, Clark must finally embrace his Kryptonian ancestry and become the superman he was destined to be.

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

While the dark and serious approach taken by Nolan for his Dark Knight trilogy works for a superhero who lives in the shadows, the similar direction Man Of Steel takes doesn’t make much sense. Tossing words around like “edgy” and “realistic” is all well and good, but when you’re dealing with god-like alien beings beating the hell out of each other and laying waste to half of Metropolis (and killing thousands of faceless people in the process, although this doesn’t seem important) on a scale not seen since the The Matrix Revolutions, “realistic” is stretching it somewhat.

Taken on their own merits, the childhood flashbacks Clark has during his Christ-like wandering phase in the film’s first act are the film’s finest moments. Handsomely filmed, these scenes are richly evocative and beautifully played by Costner and Lane. Indeed, the brief, wordless moment when a young Clark plays with the family dog and wears a makeshift red cape is Man Of Steel‘s high watermark.

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannan as General Zod in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel

However, they look like they belong in another film when Snyder switches into default mode and lets the CGI do the talking. While there was a palpable sense of jeopardy for Iron Man and co during Avengers Assembled‘s extended final battle in New York, here the only thing you feel is a sore backside.

In his big break, Henry Cavill does everything that’s asked of him, from brooding lonerism to conflicted turmoil and finally self-assurance that falls on the right side of smug. He’s no Christopher Reeve, but then who is? Anyone aware of Shannon’s turns in the likes of Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may wonder like me how much CGI was actually required to show Zod’s heat vision, so intense are Shannon’s eyes anyway. It’s hardly a stretch, but it’s fun nonetheless to watch him deliver Zod’s semi-regular meltdowns.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Although she starts out well as feisty reporter Lois Lane, Amy Adams struggles with a script that runs out of things for her to do. Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, dons his Morpheus hat for a spot of sermonising as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Crowe at least gets to run around more than Marlon Brando.

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Hans Zimmer’s score may indulge the Christ motif a little strongly at times (there’s only so many angels you need to hear), but is otherwise stirring and haunting in all the right places and doesn’t make you pine for Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic composition.

Snyder drops in a few nice touches to prepare the ground for the inevitable sequel (a Lexcorp lorry is overturned during the Superman vs Zod melee, suggesting Mr Luthor is being primed) and one can only hope it makes room for a bit more fun next time around.

It’s ironic that a film featuring a character gradually finding himself should lose its way as it goes on. There’s enough here to promise much for future adventures, but this man of steel still has a long way to fly if he hopes to reclaim his crown.

Bringing ‘Unfilmable’ Books To The Big Screen

For as long as the movie industry has existed as a popular art form, books in all their forms have been the subject of cinematic adaptation.

Whether it’s an old or modern classic or a schlocky best-seller, literature has been the source of some of the most loved films in history.

Ang Lee's Life of Pi

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi

In spite of cinema’s basic, inherent function to take words from the page and visualise them there are certain books, some have argued, that are simply impossible to film and as such will never be seen on the silver screen.

Never say never, though, especially in the movie industry, as time and again the critics are confounded and what was once written-off as ‘unfilmable’ ends up going before the cameras – all be it to varying levels of success.

This has never been more true than today, with several adaptations of books that have previously been deemed too complex or challenging to work as films reaching our cinemas. Just recently, we’ve seen an admirable take on Jack Kerouac’s defining beat generation work On The Road by Walter Salles, Ang Lee’s version of Yann Martel’s beloved novel Life of Pi and a bold adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling epic Cloud Atlas by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, while this month also sees the cinematic release of Salman Rushdie’s critically lauded book Midnight’s Children.

Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story

Michael Winterbottom’s ingenious adaptation of Tristam Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story

This is hardly a new phenomenon, however. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial tome Lolita arrived in 1962 (the film poster even states “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”). Mike Nicholls faced major challenges bringing Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war classic Catch-22 to the big screen in 1970, while more recently Peter Jackson finally delivered a truncated, but no less epic production of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to huge acclaim.

David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg’s unique Naked Lunch

Some directors have taken a more metatextual approach, including David Cronenberg who brilliantly weaved events from William Burroughs’ life into a unique adaptation of the writer’s drug-addled opus Naked Lunch. Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story inventively (and hilariously) acknowledged the difficulty of realising Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel Tristam Shandy on screen by adopted the film-within-a-film approach, while Charlie Kaufman channeled his head-banging struggle to write a script for The Orchard Thief to ingenious effect in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

As Cronenberg, Winterbottom and Kaufman/Jonze have proved, the book is merely the beginning of the process, it needn’t have to be the end. For years movies have been ‘printing the legend’ and playing fast and loose with ‘true’ stories, so why shouldn’t the adaptation of novels be any different?

Midnight's Children

The supposedly ‘unfilmable’ Midnight’s Children

As Lee has stated on adapting Life of Pi: “We can never write a book or make a movie as good as how it plays in the audience’s mind.”

Once published, a book no longer belongs to the writer, it becomes the intellectual property of each and everyone who visualises the words they are reading in their own heads. A film is just another visualisation of the material, it just happens to be the one that gets the most attention.

When the source is a graphic novel, problems can occur as the author/illustrator have already set down how it should look. Zack Snyder was on a hiding to nothing when he adapted Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen, thought to be one of the medium’s most unfilmable works.

Mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen

A mixed reaction greeted Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen

Snyder tried to stay as close to Moore’s vision as he could, but compromises inevitably needed to be made, incurring the ire of both the author and some within the fan community.

Directors and screenwriters will invariably tell you it’s not their job to come up with an ultra-faithful translation of the source. An adaptation is exactly that, an interpretation of the material that should be taken on its own merits.

So-called ‘unfilmable’ books should be treated no differently; we can only hope screenwriters and directors continue to have the vision necessary to bring these texts to the big screen. After all, the books aren’t going anywhere.