Byrogbngp, writer at
I love cinema! I have a special affinity for the science fiction, fantasy, and superhero genres.

This round of reviews is inspired by last week's "B-Movie Marathon" in which I assembled a collection of seven 'fantastic adventure' films to watch from the Walmart $3.74 DVD bin. With last week's films some were outright B-movies, and others were mainstream pictures that the critics and fans disliked on Rotten Tomatoes. All the films were rated as "rotten" both by critics and audience. Accepting that there are things that are bad or cheesy about the films, I set out to see if I could nevertheless find enough things that I liked enough to enjoy the film overall (i.e., even if just by a ratio of 51% things liked to 49% disliked.)

This week features more of a mix regarding the reception by critics and fans. With this slate some are rated "fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes; although in some cases critics and the audience are split as to whether they like the film. And this time two animated films are included. For this round I'm taking a more straightforward approach to reviewing the films, and giving them a letter grade (A-F).

I will do my best to minimize spoiling, but there are some spoilers.

Anyway, here goes:


Hercules at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 60%, audience 49%

Director: Brett Ratner

Budget - $100 million; box office - $243.4 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures' film HERCULES, starring Dwayne Johnson, bows on July 25th. Based on Radical Comics' Hercules by Steve Moore, this ensemble-action film is a revisionist take on the classic myth, HERCULES. The epic action film also stars Golden Globe Winner Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan and Academy Award (R)-nominee John Hurt. (C) Paramount"

My Review

My reaction to this film was mixed. I wanted to like it, but struggled to do so. In the first few minutes I thought it was going to be pretty bad. Yet very soon it captured my interest with its innovative approach to the character and the myth. And by the film's end I did come away more satisfied than not with the movie's fresh take, as I'll discuss in more depth below. However it still left me feeling like something was amiss, or missing, or didn't quite sit right, etc.

What the film does succeed with somewhat... at least in terms of holding my interest... is playing with our heads a bit regarding the myth and expectations we probably have based on our knowledge of it. Unfortunately (at least for me) it felt like it does so in a fitful or indecisive way. It seems to want to have things both ways.

On the one hand, the film tells a story we would expect for a demigod. But on the other hand, it also reveals Hercules to be a con-man. This Hercules is a mortal mercenary who uses the legendary tales that have grown to make people believe he is the son of Zeus. Yet on the other hand, Hercules does seem to be possessed of truly godlike strength and fighting ability. I'll try to keep spoiling to a minimum by noting that the film ends with Hercules performing an act of such tremendous strength that, without a doubt, that it would be impossible for anyone but a demigod or god. And yet in another scene near to the end, the film seems content in stating that Hercules is in fact not divine at all, and that this makes him all the more interesting a figure. So while the film gave me an unexpectedly sophisticated portrait of the character, it also vaguely annoyed me that it couldn't seem to make up its mind about who he was. I realize that the film is intentionally ambiguous in this regard--but it came off (to me) as waffling. Anyway, I suppose it is a positive thing overall. At least it was something fresh and different.

The film treats us to some imaginary scenes of Hercules fighting the fabled monsters of his traditional myth. Honestly, I really would have preferred to have seen Hercules battle such fantastic creatures. I'm normally on board when a film changes source material to give us an original vision. Here I was not so taken by the effort.

The story of Hercules and his comrades taking a mercenary contract to assist a king against an aggressive neighbor, and action scenes throughout the film, were alright. The cast was fine. Nothing extraordinary. But pretty good. In terms of the acting performances none really stood out for me.

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Dwayne Johnson in the role quite as much as I had hoped. I'm a fan of the Rock and the role of Hercules seems a pretty good match for him. I also had no greater expectations for Johnson's acting in this film than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Conan. I wasn't expecting Shakespeare. But to continue that comparison, the Rock didn't really sell me in the way that Arnold did as Conan by becoming synonymous with the character. I can't exactly tell you why.

The film manages to do something innovative enough with the 'real man behind the myth' concept that it managed to barely win me over in the balance. But there were also a lot of elements that for me just don't come together cogently or satisfy me emotionally.

Grade: C+. To me this film came across as though it couldn't make up its mind about who Hercules is. I can see that it was striving for ambiguity but it just felt muddled to me. I would much more have enjoyed the Rock battling fantastic creatures of myth.

John Carter

John Carter at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 51%, audience 60%

Director: Andrew Stanton

Budget - $263.7 million; box office - $284.1 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"From filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes John Carter-a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). John Carter is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands. -- (C) Walt Disney"

My Review

This is the type of film that one can enjoy if it is approached it in a spirit similar to the old movie serials from the 1930s to 1940s--something like, say, Flash Gordon. Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series of books was published in 1912 and he continued writing them until 1948 (with the last book of the series published posthumously in 1964). It is the sort of tale that does not (and as it stands cannot) rely upon scientific plausibility to entertain.

I tried to read John Carter of Mars as a teenager and although an avid science fiction fan I couldn't really get into it. However after watching this film today and reading a few synopses of Rice's A Princess of Mars, it looks to me like the film was relatively faithful to the book.

For me, the only real problem I experienced was with the fact that the story is so radically far apart from what we know scientifically of the Red Planet. (And I'm feeling that especially keenly as I write this review on the eve of the premiere of The Martian!) The story essentially uses astral travel to explain how Carter gets to Mars (even if it is not specifically described as such in the film). In the world of a film, astral travel can be accepted as conceivably having a scientific basis for some sort of technology that we don't yet understand. In the movie it is used by an ancient race of devious, manipulative pale skinned shapeshifting Martians called Therns who seem to use both technology and mystical energies. Anyway, I think it would have improved the tale if it had engaged in just a slight bit of revisionism: it might have posited that the astral travel connected John Carter to a parallel universe (within the multiverse concept of infinite parallel universes) in which Mars is the planet Barsoom. That is, it is a Mars that followed a different evolution than the one we know in (our) reality. Or the astral travel portal could even be a wormhole to connect to an ancient Mars that existed billions of years ago when life could theoretically have flourished on it in real life. Simply to have done that would have helped me ignore the real life knowledge I have that 1880s Mars lacks a breathable atmosphere, and so forth.

Other than that, I accepted the story more or less in the same way I would Flash Gordon. I went with the flow--and had a good time. Barsoom (the inhabitant's name for the planet) is a war torn desert world populated with humanoids that appear indistinguishable from earthlings as the dominant species, and they have established city-states. In this respect they are reminiscent of the ancient Greeks. They also have a kind of Roman vibe. They fight with swords and spears but also have airship technology and some type of blaster rifles shaped like muskets.

Barsoom once had oceans but that past is now legend and myth to its inhabitants. In real life, scientists have concluded that Mars was indeed once warm and wet but it took place about a billion years earlier than on earth. So it is probably a coincidence with Burrows' tale, but this story has Martian civilizations that are truly ancient by earth's standards (which they would be if a humanoid species had evolved there).

Naturally, the film features much more fantastic creatures as well (see below).

John Carter is an American from the 1880s, a former Confederate Army Captain and self-styled archeologist/adventurer who has become wealthy through his discoveries of ancient treasure. Through one of those adventures he is mysteriously transported to Barsoom (Mars). There he falls in love with and rescues a red skinned humanoid Princess named Dejah from a political marriage. During Carter's adventures he is also taken in by the Tharks, a green skinned, tusked, four-armed, 12 foot tall humanoid race. He is befriended by two Tharks in particular: Tars Tarkas, a tribal chieftain, and Tarkas' daughter Sola.

I enjoyed the various types of Martian races, especially the Tharks. The various monsters that John must deal with were also entertaining. John Carter's superhuman powers were fun to watch (because of the low gravity he's a superman). How Carter's telepathy was gained (which allows him to speak the native languages) could have been better explained, but this was no big deal.

I liked the characters, and I enjoyed the story. I thought Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Princess Dejah), Willem Dafoe (voice of Tars Tarkas), and Samantha Morton (voice of Sola) were all engaging.

Grade: B. For some reason I was able to mentally allow this be a fun movie for me. Simply imagining that Barsoom is reached either via time-travel to Mars' distant past, or that it exists in a parallel universe, worked for me. (And as far as I can see, nothing in the film contradicts that invented explanation.)

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 51%, audience 60%

Director: Zack Snyder

Budget - $80 million; box office - $140.1 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"Acclaimed filmmaker Zack Snyder makes his animation debut with the fantasy family adventure "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" based on the beloved Guardians of Ga'Hoole books by Kathryn Lasky. The film follows Soren, a young owl enthralled by his father's epic stories of the Guardians of Ga' Hoole, a mythic band of winged warriors who had fought a great battle to save all of owlkind from the evil Pure Ones. While Soren dreams of someday joining his heroes, his older brother, Kludd, scoffs at the notion, and yearns to hunt, fly and steal his father's favor from his younger sibling. But Kludd's jealousy has terrible consequences--causing both owlets to fall from their treetop home and right into the talons of the Pure Ones. Now it is up to Soren to make a daring escape with the help of other brave young owls. Together they soar across the sea and through the mist to find the Great Tree, home of the legendary Guardians--Soren's only hope of defeating the Pure Ones and saving the owl kingdoms. -- (C) Warner Bros"

My Review

I love the Richard Adams book Watership Down, a surprisingly engrossing fantasy tale about a warren of of rabbits, and the rabbit world. I haven't seen the animated film version of the story and have never felt any inclination to do so. But based on that association the concept behind Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole sounded fairly appealing. I have not read the book upon which this film is based. But obviously instead of using rabbits this film brings to life a fantasy world for owls. Naturally, there will be differences between these two very different animals species. But it is a similar basic concept.

And I'm also an enthusiastic fan of this film's director Zack Snyder. I greatly admire three of his films: 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel. I have little doubt that I'll be adding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to the list.

I should add also that I felt a bit of hesitation about this film as well: because, honestly, I usually find that I don't care all that much for animated films. That includes animated superhero feature films, incidentally. (They're just not for me.) Every so often I do come across an animated film that I kind of like, but it's rare. Of course I enjoyed the old Disney classics as a child, but have no interest in them now. I loved Heavy Metal as an adolescent and young man, but similarly have no interest in seeing it again now. For contemporary animated films I enjoyed The Incredibles and WALL-E. I was more or less entertained by Ratatouille even though I didn't love it. Toy Story, Shrek, and Kung Fu Panda were watchable for me but nothing to rave about. (I saw none of their sequels.) That's about it. I tried to watch Rango and absolutely hated it (stopped watching after about ten minutes). Monsters I tried to watch, but clearly I was not its target audience and bailed out not far into it. That's about all I've seen.

Anyway, adding up all these factors I start the viewing of this film with some hope that I might enjoy Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.

I did not. The type of reaction I had is a very subjective in nature, and I must emphasize that I respect that other viewers are obviously entitled to a very different experience than mine. But I did not find the owls to be endearing at all. The film uses transparent emotional manipulation to try to make the critters human, cuddly, and adorable. That utterly failed for me and in fact drove me in the other direction (I recoiled from the manipulation).

In very short strokes the plot is that the hero, a juvenile owl named Soren and his brother Kladd are kidnapped by evil owls that have a plan to create a fascist order for all of 'owldom'. Under such a regime every owl is forced into an assigned social role. The theme of a major manifestation of evil being the creation and enforcement of a caste system that determines social value and identity is a theme that Snyder uses again in Man of Steel. It is a concept more positively expressed in 300, in which the Spartans are self-defined as being born and bred strictly for war (and as such they save Greek civilization--which ironically bears the seed of modern Western democracy--from totalitarian Persian conquest). Soren is befriended by allies from a diverse array of owl sub-species (and even a nursemaid snake which in real life would be food--okay, whatever); and with their help Soren is able to obtain the aid of the Guardians, owls believed to be mythical but in fact are real. Of course the Guardians are real and do come to the rescue.

As mentioned, I have not watched too many animated films. But even from what I have seen when I linger on one while channel surfing, it seems obvious that filmmakers for this genre have the formula down cold now. Some of the tropes include a smattering of incidental characters that provide comedic relief; wise, gruff but nurturing mentors; evil deceivers/traitors, comedic sidekicks, etc. This film of course has them but to me they all felt contrived. The moral that " we (most authentically) are what we dream" is worthwhile--and not for nothing, it helps us justify and feel better about our adult indulgence in fantasy/adventure fiction! The film also creates a metaphor for the transition from childhood dreams of 'who we can be' to the harsh realities of adult life in the theme of taking flight and leaving the nest that is fairly substantial. But otherwise the sense of wonder or magic that the film hopes to inspire (i.e., the legendary Guardian owls residing in their fabled Tree of Ga'Hoole), although exquisitely rendered graphically, felt a bit icky. (Is it supposed to? If so, I can admire the film for that conceptually, actually. But for now I'm going to guess not, as that would be hugely subversive for a mainstream director.)

Another contrivance that stood out for me: I was puzzled by the metal flecks imbued with some sort of magical energy that the big bads Metal Beak and his mate Nyra are gathering. I have no idea if this was in the book, or how well explained it was there if so. But in the film it felt inserted to drive the plot.

That said, the metal flecks may have been symbolic. The owls of this fantasy world use metal-smithing to craft armor and weapons for war. Is this metallurgical 'mana' then supposed to represent the magical transformative power of childlike dreaming of who we can 'one day' be (when we 'grow up') that has a potential to be 'forged' by the adversities (fire, hammer, and anvil) of adult life? Is the message that the (evil) adult world wants to steal, hoard, isolate, and corrupt it? It is something irreducibly numinous and precious that can't be destroyed, as symbolized via the owl body's digestive system (the flecks are picked from digestive pellets of the creatures that owls eat); and in that sense perhaps represents childlike innocence (dreaming of what we can become) that cannot truly be destroyed by adult realities--only shaped by it? Depending on the possible symbolism there might be something fairly thought-provoking going on here. But if there is, at this writing I don't feel motivated to try to decipher it further.

Anyway, I credit myself for watching all the way through. And it is a somewhat intriguing film to watch as part of the body of work for a gifted and visionary director. The film may actually have some fascinating symbolism and social or existential statements to make, but I feel unmotivated to decode it. Just as a straightforward escapist fantastical adventure story in its own right, I outright disliked this film. And that is relatively rare for me!

Grade: D. If it turns out that there is deeper complex symbolism that makes this at least an intellectually fascinating film to watch then I may change my tune. But my appreciation of the film would then be entirely conceptual.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 26%, audience 40%

Director: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Budget - $176 million; box office - $183.9 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"From the streets of Chicago to the far-flung galaxies whirling through space, "Jupiter Ascending" tells the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who was born under a night sky, with signs predicting she was destined for great things. Now grown, Jupiter dreams of the stars but wakes up to the cold reality of a job cleaning other people's houses and an endless run of bad breaks. Only when Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track her down does Jupiter begin to glimpse the fate that has been waiting for her all along-her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an extraordinary inheritance that could alter the balance of the cosmos. (C) Warner Bros"

My Review

I was so hoping to like this movie! The story concept of planets being harvested (I won't spoil as how) by advanced civilizations that 'seed' them is compelling. I like all the actors that the Wachowskis rounded up for the film. I love the film Cloud Atlas, which the Wachowskis also directed, and had high hopes that Jupiter Ascending would rival that brilliant film. And of course for a blockbuster like this we expect the CGI to be great.

But, sadly, Jupiter Ascending is a mess. What a missed opportunity this film is! The fact that it should have been good actually aggravates me a bit.

Jupiter Jones, played by Mila Kunis, is essentially a reincarnation of a member of a royal family (the House of Asbrax) of advanced humanoids that seeded Earth. As such Jupiter, once confirmed and validated as such, would be the owner of the planet and then stands in the way of the royal family members who wish to exploit Earth's resources for their own gain.

A human genetically spliced with canine genetic features, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) becomes Jupiter's protector. He is an ex-soldier who once had wings on his back in his back (removed for a misdeed), and he apparently works now as a bounty hunter. Caine is helped by another ex-military friend Stinger Apini (Sean Bean) and some of Stinger's allies.

I'm not sure quite how to coherently describe how this film fails to deliver a good story... But first of all, it features a succession of 'out of the frying pan into the fire' rescues, as Caine keeps plucking Jupiter to safety from the next dire situation she ends up in. That might work in principle. But here in practice Caine's use of gravity boots that works like rollerblades and an arm-held energy shield are lame. The premise that, time and again, Caine overcomes superior numbers and firepower with those devices felt flimsy to me. The worst example of this is Cain and Stinger somehow miraculously surviving a gauntlet of hundreds of enemy ships. That didn't feel plausible at all, and for me was immersion breaking.

Tatum does his best with the role, but the character's abilities to me felt pretty unconvincing. Reportedly, Tatum wore a mouthpiece to give him a more jutting jawline that reportedly made it difficult for him to speak. That wasn't obvious to me, however (to Tatum's credit).

The royal family villains (three siblings) add a silly bit of fun. Eddie Redmayne (Balem Abrasax), Douglas Booth (Titus Abrasax), and Tuppence Middleton (Kalique Abrasax) are camp but still whimsically entertaining. Redmayne speaks in a menacing whisper but periodically bursts into screams--which is (I assume) unintentionally comical.

I found Mila Kunis to be engaging as Jupiter Jones. The way the story is written for her doesn't give her a lot to work with, though. At times she becomes a bit reminiscent of Star Wars' Princess Leia, such as when she survives an assault from the main villain. But most of the time Jupiter "just wants to go home" and to "protect her family" when the bigger picture of unfolding events in the film clearly demands much more of her intellectually and morally.

Another problem is that the dialogue of this film over-relies on Jupiter's education about what's going on extra-terrestrially and regarding her reincarnation. She learns about the Byzantine world of the royals and their home planet's culture and advanced technologies, from Cliff Notes-like explanations given to her by others. In this way the film tends to 'tell' more than show.

There is an incongruous and failed attempt at humor on the royals home planet when Jupiter and Caine deal with the planet's records bureaucracy. I shrugged at it. It is just more grist for the mill given all that fails in this film.

There are a few bright spots. Jupiter Ascending is a visual extravaganza, as expected. The special effects are good, and the prosthetics and costumes are fun.

Grade: C-. There are some failed blockbuster films that I can enjoy as train wrecks as I would a B movie. But this film ought to have been very cool and instead it is stupidly executed. I find it hard to enjoy for that reason.


Dredd at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 78%, audience 72%

Director: Pete Travis

Budget - $45 million; box office - $41.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"The future America is an irradiated waste land. On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One- a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets. The only force of order lies with the urban cops called "Judges" who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner. Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge - a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of "Slo-Mo" experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed. -- (C) Lionsgate"

My Review

In Dredd, Karl Urban plays a cop of the dystopic future in which the justice system is short-circuited. Police don't just apprehend criminals; they also render a verdict of guilt or innocence, give an appropriate sentence as indicated, and carry the sentence out. Which in some cases is instant execution.

The eastern seaboard of the U.S. from Boston to Washington D.C. has become a walled-in, decaying super-megatropolis ("Mega-City One," surrounded by an irradiated wasteland) that is run by corporate oligarchs and criminal warlords. In this simple tale Judge Dredd is charged with making a field assessment of a rookie Judge with psychic abilities (in this post-apocalyptic world some people are born with such mutant abilities) named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). The two of them stumble into a hi-rise building that houses an enormous drug factory, which the duo gets locked down in, and must somehow survive until they can figure out a way to break free.

Overall I enjoyed this film. It's hard not to compare it to Judge Dredd, however, which for me was vaguely disconcerting. The 1995 film is cartoonish as all-get-out, so it's like apples and oranges. I felt that a barking and Rambo-like Silvester Stallone at least made Judge Dredd kind of fun as the lead character. Unfortunately the film also annoyingly shoehorns in Rob Schneider as Dredd's sidekick (action heroes having comedic relief sidekicks being kind of a trend at the time). And Armand Assante, who is normally very good, reaches staggering new heights in campiness and overacting for a superhero or action film villain. So the original film is kind of goofy but mostly entertaining in terms of the character and his fictional world. But it also has a lot of bad ingredients to spoil the broth.

Is this reboot film better? Yeah, in my opinion it is for sure. The fact that the fictional world of the film is more sober and serious works. This film depicts a brutal and terrifying world, and the need for the world's Judges feels at least very compelling if not morally justified. This is an extremely violent film, and in a world of such violence the Judges clearly have to be totally badass simply in order to survive much less offer any social force whatsoever to counterbalance the rampant crime element.

Urban's performance is stoic and grim--perhaps to a fault. There is an almost robotic quality to him that reminded me of Peter Weller's RoboCop. This Judge Dredd is all grim determination and martial/tactical competence. Dredd doesn't have much personality otherwise--although I suppose he is easy enough to relate simply in terms of his role. The mostly emotionless approach to the character at least does no real harm, at any rate. And actually it allows Judge Anderson to provide the more humanly engaging, vulnerable, and relatable character by contrast. Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson is very good.

Otherwise it was refreshing to see a female character as the big bad in this film, a crime lord named Ma-Ma. She gives a solid performance.

Grade: B+. This is a pretty good film. Actually, it might just as easily warrant an A-. Not sure what keeps me from giving it the slightly higher grade. Maybe it is that although I didn't get bored, I did feel vaguely claustrophobic and antsy by most of the film being confined within a single building. That may be just me, though.

I would like to see a sequel to this film if they ever make one.


Beowulf at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 71%, audience 50%

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Budget - $150 million; box office - $196.4 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"In a legendary time of heroes, the mighty warrior Beowulf battles the demon Grendel and incurs the hellish wrath of the beast's ruthlessly seductive mother. Their epic clash forges the timeless legend of Beowulf."

My Review

Because I'm not a great fan of animated films, I wasn't sure whether I would particularly care for this movie. When I initially chose it to watch I didn't even realize it was animated! This movie was filmed in live action and then CGI has been used to apply an animated veneer to it. It seems a very odd choice stylistically. But it actually does imbue the picture with a strange dream-like feeling that is effective.

Anyway, I was quite drawn in by this film throughout. I never once got a sense of feeling bored. The film's narrative structure is very solid and snugly fit together.

The dialogue is well written and the acting performances are good. Ray Winstone does a credible earthy job in the title role. Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar) gives the usual fine performance we have come to expect when he plays a king. Robin Wright Penn (Hrothgar's wife, Queen Wealtheow) is convincingly haunted and sad. John Malkovich as the Hrothgar's advisor Unferth gives his now familiar performance as a devious plotter, and few do it better. Brendan Gleeson is solid as Wiglaf, Beowuif's best friend. Crispin Glover is excellent as the monster Grendel. And Angelina Jolie truly steals the show as Grendel's mother.

This is a very straightforward tale of an epic hero slaying monsters. But it also explores a tragic dimension to the fame and glory associated with such renown: the deeds required for it take their toll, and at the end of the day a great human emotional price is exacted for it. Also, the deeds themselves can't actually avoid the hero's actual human shortcomings, which become a source of secret shame-- a kind of curse. Like the film Hercules starring Dwayne Johnson reviewed above, Beowulf observes that legends are created in our perception through the human mind's apparent need to see heroes as larger-than-life. But this is an action film after all. So, also like Hercules, the film also shows the hero to be as truly epic in his fighting abilities. The scenes of Beowulf's battles with the two main monsters of the film do not disappoint.

Beowulf however delivers a more coherent message than Hercules. The fact that heroes must hide their flaws and weaknesses 'curses' them with a hidden sense of shame. As such they become (secretly and privately) tragic figures as well.

Grade: A-. This is a much better film than I expected. It is surprisingly good. I have to wonder if it would have been even better without the animation effect. But the director and producers evidently decided that it was more effective as animated. The animation did make the film a curiosity to watch (for me, anyway).

300: Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 42%, audience 52%

Director: Noam Murro

Budget - $110 million; box office - $337.6 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"Based on Frank Miller's latest graphic novel Xerxes and told in the breathtaking visual style of the blockbuster "300," this new chapter of the epic saga takes the action to a fresh battlefield-on the sea-as Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) attempts to unite all of Greece by leading the charge that will change the course of the war. "300: Rise of an Empire" pits Themistokles against the massive invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and Artemisia (Eva Green), vengeful commander of the Persian navy. (c) WB"

My Review

Zack Snyder's 300 is a masterpiece in my opinion, so this sequel has some mighty big shoes to fill. So let's get right to it: this movie simply cannot match 300. But that said, I was still fairly entranced by this film nevertheless. I love ancient history--especially that of the Greeks. So unless this film was downright bad (and in my opinion it is not) I knew I was likely to enjoy it for the most part. I did.

300: Rise of an Empire tells the story of Themistocles defense of Greece by uniting the Greek city-states against the common foe of the Persian god-king Xerxes. This involves the epic Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartan soldiers heroically held the pass for seven days against overwhelming Persian numbers (i.e., the story told in 300). But this film paints the bigger picture of the overall invasion, and in particular two key naval battles that ensued between Xerxes invasion force and the Greeks.

Sullivan Stapleton gives an adequate performance as Themistocles, the leader of the Greek navy. But it is hard not to mentally compare him with Gerald Butler's amazing performance as Leonidas in 300. Sullivan's Themistocles is not as charismatic. But he is still convincing as a clever and noble general.

Lena Headey reprises her role as Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo, and she is again very charismatic. I enjoyed Eva Green as Xerxes' female lead general, Artemisia. Rodrigo Santoro is again (as he was in 300) an amazing sight to behold as Xerxes. And Jack O'connell delivers a memorable performance as Calisto, son of Scyllias, one of Themistocles' closest comrades-at-arms.

Stylistically, this is both a gory and artful film. It uses the same basic visual tone and film techniques that 300 did. None of that works as well as it did in 300. But I still found it to be pretty captivating nevertheless.

Grade: B-. As mentioned, I'm such a fan of 300, and ancient history in general, that unless this film was horrible I knew I would be engrossed by it. This film gave me what is actually a pretty interesting story that I did become invested in, with characters that I came to care about for the most part (although not as strongly as in 300). I was able to enjoy it for what it does have to offer.

The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem at Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Wikipedia

Tomato-meter: critics 78%, audience 72%

Director: Terry Gilliam

Budget - $8.5–13.5 million; box office - $1.2 million

Rotten Tomatoes description:

"Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)'s madcap science fiction epic The Zero Theorem stars two- time Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, an eccentric and reclusive computer genius plagued with existential angst. Living in isolation in a burnt-out church, Qohen is obsessively working on a mysterious project personally delegated to him by Management (Matt Damon) aimed at discovering the meaning of life - or the complete lack of one - once and for all. Increasingly disturbed by unwanted visits from people he doesn't fully trust, including flirtatious Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), Management's wunderkind son Bob (Lucas Hedges), his unpredictable colleague Job (David Thewlis), and would-be digital therapist Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), it's only when he experiences the power of love and desire that he's able to understand his own reason for being. (c) Amplify"

My Review

I gave this film a chance because I really like the cast and wanted to see if Terry Gilliam has evolved as a director. Granted, I haven't seen many of Gilliam's films to begin with. The only one that I have ever liked is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Not that I have any interest in seeing it again, but I did enjoy that film during the time period it came out.) I didn't particularly care for Time Bandits, Brazil, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which are the others that I have seen. Anyway, I wondered if perhaps maybe Gilliam may have grown creatively to try something other than what I've grown accustomed to seeing from him.

I was hugely disappointed. What a waste of talented actors, whom I have enjoyed so much in other films! In particular I am referring to Christoph Waltz who was so wonderful as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. And although I have only seen Melanie Thierry in Babylon A.D., even though the movie itself is badly flawed I still really loved her performance in it.

The Zero Theorem tries to meld cynical humor with a dark, bleak existentialism, and in a way that utterly failed to connect with me. In terms of overall feel and tone the film reminds me of Brazil, except using more of Gilliam's Monty Python cartoon-style visual touches. Visually, the world of the film's dystopian society is full of zany, grotesque, and colorful imagery that I guess is supposed to accentuate the banality of the existence its members endure. The picture also reminded me a great deal of another film that I disliked, Joe Versus the Volcano. Joe Versus the Volcano is not a Gilliam film, but at least to my eye it seems to share many themes in common with it. In both films a hopeless worker bee believes that he is 'dying' due to the crushing depersonalization of our mechanized capitalist industrial society. He then embarks on a quest for possible salvation and a heroin appears (plot-wise) in order to inspire a reason to find love and justify an authentic reason to live.

The protagonist Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a 'numbers cruncher' for the government, which is a corporation. He is given a special assignment by the Orwellian 'Management' (Matt Damon) to try to prove a theorem that mathematically posits that existence is entirely meaninglessness. Why Management wants to know this was unclear to me... Although, arguably it doesn't matter in this fictional world. Because if the theorem is correct then ultimately nothing in the universe does, right?

Management sends Qohen two sidekicks: a call girl named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and his own mathematical genius son Bob (Lucas Hedges). Both Bainsley and Bob are actually likable (with very good performances by Thierry and Hedges). But Qohen is ultimately unable to connect with either of them. Indeed, in terms of relatedness Qohen seems unable to form meaningful human connections of any kind. Rather, he is instead singularly and obsessively focused on receiving a telephone call that will explain the reason for his existence. Spoiler:

It turns out that this hoped for telephone call is a delusion. In this disjointed and nonsensical world it seems almost anything should be possible--but the phone call Qohen is expecting is revealed to not be reality-based. I should add that much of the story may be Qhoen's delusion, for all we know.

There is a metaphor in this film of depression having the properties of a black hole. The more 'density and mass' the black hole of depression gains, the more its gravity sucks everything else in the person's perception and experience into it and crushes and subsumes it. Throughout this film Qohen is shown periodically gaping into the maw of a black hole. He is truly a tragic figure, at least for those of us who need human connection to feel emotionally alive, and a sense of meaning and purpose. Unfortunately Qohen is not a particularly sympathetic or likable character--and for most of us that matters. At least it does for me. Without it, the film can't really engage me. To that end, here is another spoiler:

At the film's conclusion Qohen enters a black hole (via virtual reality, but its all metaphorical anyway) and finds himself on the other side--which seems for him a kind of paradise of splendid existential isolation. Because Qohen is apparently incapable of connecting to other people, his personal 'heaven' is to finally be left alone for eternity? Yet it is a paradise that should also remind him of nearly having connected with Bainsley. So who knows if that would in time come to haunt him...

I won't spoil beyond this in case the reader likes Gilliam's work for the most part, and may wish to see the film despite my panning it.

There were two silver linings in this film for me. One is that it confirmed for me that Melanie Thierry is now one of my favorite actors. She shines brightly even in this godawful thing. (Honorable mention to Lucas Hedges who was also very good.) The other is that this film reminded me of what I do enjoy about films... by giving me the opposite. I love films with characters that I can relate to, and increasingly grow to care about throughout the film. I love it when a film's story engages me and progressively draws me in with themes that strike a strong chord with me and by the artfulness with which the film's 'messages' is constructed. And I love films that, as I re-watch them multiple times, make me admire the craft of filmmaking--i.e., telling a story specifically through the medium of film--but in a way that it all works transparently and unconsciously in my direct experience as a viewer, such that I completely lose myself in that world.

For me, The Zero Theorem did the opposite of all those things. In the case of performances I was able to like, for example it made me feel that I liked Melanie Thierry more than her character Bainsley!

Gilliam reminds me of Tim Burton, who keeps churning out the same type of film again and again. During the course of this film I found myself asking: why in the world is Terry Gilliam still making films like this? Good Lord man, challenge yourself to try something different!

Grade: D-. This film showed me two actors (Melanie Thierry and Lucas Hedges) that did fine job in a dreary film, and I expect good performances from them in future roles. But I find this film's brand of nihilistic existentialism to be self-indulgent. A more substantial message would have resonated with me more.


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