300: Rise of an Empire: I have great faith in Zack Snyder as a director. I believe he has the potential for greatness, and Watchmen is a first claim to that status. The first 300 was limited by the script: it could only go so far, and he did go that far. I've only seen it once, but I believe Man of Steel is far better than people give it credit for. Now, Rise of an Empire was directed by Noam Murrow, but Snyder enjoys part of the writing and producing credits. And it is very difficult not to see the second as following the path of the first. Which is why that first paragraph, and now we can set Mr. Snyder aside, and consider the movie its own. Except not wholly, for there is also a parallel between Rise and Sucker Punch: they both begin to fall apart at some point in the film. (I love Sucker Punch, but it did get away from Snyder.)
I was quite impressed with Rise up to the sex scene. The writing was tight, the dialogue very well written, with no small poetic flourish and a willingness to resist being dumbed down to the level of your average comic-movie viewer. The one thing I could not stand was the 3D effects. Working 3D into the film just for the sake of having things come at the audience is clumsy film making. Good 3D will never have a point where the audience goes "the reason they did that was to take advantage of the 3D." (I point you to Monsters vs. Aliens, and the commentary thereon.)
But then came that sex scene, and the film pretty much went downhill from there. Entirely because of the writing. Murray should have known there was a problem when the first moment of humor in the movie comes during a scene that is already going to be a bumpy sell. When the two masked guards looked at each other questioning the noises coming from behind the door, the dialogue I heard was, "From where the hell did this scene come?"
Except, there could have been a purpose to that scene, anchored upon the closing comment by Artemisia: "You are no god." (Or something like that.) The scene could have been written such that from the start — and I mean from before it actually happens — it was clear that Artemisia had two ideas in mind (and perhaps this was the thought). First that Artemisia was inviting Themistocles to join her, knowing that together they could lead an unbeatable army. Second, as regards the sex, that she was testing the spirit of Themistocles to see if there was indeed any divinity within him.
Both these ideas are present in the sequence. But neither of these ideas dominates and informs the writing of the whole sequence or the rest of the film. Instead, it turned into a rather silly sequence of rough sex — silly in idea and shooting — if one capped with the wonderful shot of Artemisia drawing the sword to Themosticles's neck. The scene would have worked better if both ideas were to the front, and both ideas were connected to the rest of the film. If Artemisia wanted Themosticles to join them, the idea would have been bolstered it was coupled with the idea that Darius's death — or diminishing in power — would be central to it. (Which would couple it with the idea that Themosticles should have killed Darius, not Xerxes.) As well, the idea of the testing of divinity could have in the open right from the start, with a near constant exchange of the asking and deflecting of the question "are you part god?" An exchange in words that would then be transformed into a physical dialogue.
From there the film fell apart. The dialog became more and more hack and started to show signs of dumbing itself to comic-movie level. The Henry V sequence was idiotic, both in its being a cheap imitation and in its missing the point that the Greek soldiers were motivated by an ideal beyond something military. That speech should have been silenced immediately by the soldiers, or been voiced not as a rah rah speech but as statement of fact. And then of course you have the small absurdities, like the constant showing of the slave-oarsmen in the Persian ships as constrasted to the constant statements of the Greeks as fighting for freedom; all the while the Greek oarsmen being also chained to their oars. There could have been a great scene of Darius speaking to the oarsmen in the nature of "I will not trust my safety to the backs of slaves. I will trust it only to free men who fight with me willingly" with all chains being discarded. That would have served the film far better than the half-assed, Henry V knockoff dialogue.
What I find most interesting about the film, though, is the critics and reviews I've read online, and how so many of them are complaints of how the film did not follow comic book convention. For example, the idea that Artemisia and Queen Gorgo should have met in battle. To think that is should even have been a possibility was to miss the central ideas of the movie entirely. But, such a thing is standard comic/fantasy convention, and so those viewers who only see convention were put off by their expected convention not being satisfied.
Only Lovers Left Alive: it is to my embarrassment that I have so few Jim Jarmusch films in my collection. With each film of his I see, I become more convinced that he is the lyrical heir of Kubrick's title. It is this direction that I thought Fincher was going with his opening forays of Alien3, Se7en,The Game, and Fight Club. But then came the genre film Panic Room, which is an interesting technical technical film that doesn't quite congeal. He came back to it with Zodiac and Benjamin Button, but seems to have veered away into flat — if prettily painted — narrative these last couple. (Though, I admit, I have not watched them enough.)
There's not much I want to say about Only Lovers outside of general praise of is poetry. And perhaps to say that it is about as close to hair porn as a sophisticated film can get. And then maybe to take the opportunity to raise up Tilda Swinton, which I do at every opportunity. She and Cate Blanchett may be the two best female actors out there right now.