Video Verdict: Reviews of ‘300: Rise of an Empire,’ ‘Winter’s Tale’ and ‘Enemy’

Sullivan Stapleton plays Themistocles in the stylized historical adventure “300: Rise of an Empire.”

Sullivan Stapleton plays Themistocles in the stylized historical adventure “300: Rise of an Empire.”

This week’s major home video releases include an offbeat drama from the director of “Prisoners,” a supernatural romance and a sequel to the historical adventure “300.”

300: Rise of an Empire

2½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand

Since “300” ended with the death of all major protagonists, a sequel makes about as much sense as a follow-up to “Titanic.” Nevertheless, Warner Brothers found a way to turn writer-director Zack Snyder’s enjoyable 2006 adventure film into an ongoing political saga punctuated by brutal, stylized killings and slow-motion geysers of bright, red blood.

The movie was obviously designed as a cash grab, and the biggest surprise of the 103-minute feature is that it actually entertains. This observation must be noted with reserve, however. “300: Rise of an Empire” is not an important movie, nor is it a reasonable representation of history. Rather, it offers a highly fictionalized look at the second Persian invasion of Greece, and it serves as an excuse for shirtless men to swing swords at one another in a series of lengthy-but-exciting battle sequences.

Although directed by Noam Murro (“Smart People”), “Rise of an Empire” takes its visual cues from Snyder’s original film. Since Snyder is also a producer and co-screenwriter, the project is as much his as Murro’s, meaning both men deserve credit … for the good and bad.

The story – based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel “Xerxes” – takes place before, during and after the events depicted in “300.” Snippets of the earlier movie are shown in flashback in a halfhearted attempt to tie the films together, but the real focus is on Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton).

In an early sequence, viewers are told that Themistocles killed the Persian king Darius (Igal Naor) in a military conflict, prompting the king’s son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), to mount a vengeful attack on Greece. Viewers then watch as Themistocles participates in great battles against a mighty Persian naval commander named Artemisia (Eva Green).

Both Themistocles and Artemisia are presented as superheroes capable of dispatching average human warriors with the swipe of a hand. Murro spends a great deal of time idolizing the two and preparing audiences for their climactic final showdown.

Although the plotting is wrapped around a simple historical skeleton, the details are manipulated to craft a melodramatic, soap opera-like fable. Because of this – and because Murro knows most viewers are only interested in the action – “Rise of an Empire” is neither subtle nor smart. The pacing is fast, the battle sequences are gorgeously staged, and the stylized depictions of violence are as brutal as they are artistically pleasing. As with “300,” many sequences play like a live-action comic book, and that is a compliment.

Stapleton and Green are solid in the physically demanding lead roles, allowing permissive viewers to buy into their inherently unbelievable actions. These two are surrounded by equally fine physical specimens who flash well-chiseled abs and bulging biceps as they swing swords at one another. For audiences that appreciate this sort of glorified combat, “Rise of an Empire” delivers.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include five making-of features.

 

Winter’s Tale

3 stars
Rated PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

With “Winter’s Tale,” Academy Award-winning writer Akiva Goldsman offers a likable-yet-imperfect interpretation of Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel. The film, like the book, is centered on the story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a small-time thief who has fallen out of favor with the ruthless gangster who raised him, Pearly Soames (Russel Crowe).

In early scenes, Peter barely escapes form Pearly and his thugs thanks to the sudden appearance of a mysterious and powerful white horse. This offers the first hint that Peter is more than an average man and that Pearly’s evil transcends human comprehension.

Goldsman is best known as a writer and producer, but for “Winter’s Tale” he made his feature film directing debut. He also co-wrote the screenplay, meaning the movie’s entire artistic weight rests on his shoulders. He is mostly up to the task.

“Winter’s Tale” would be a challenging film for any director because it begins with a realistic, turn-of-the-century setting, then slowly introduces an increasing number of supernatural elements. This is done by design because Peter, at first, has no idea that he is anything special. So, viewers learn about the unusual world he inhabits at the same time he does.

Viewers are also treated to a powerful love story that holds the film’s emotional center. Realizing that Pearly will eventually catch up to him, Peter decides to leave town, but not before robbing a fine-looking estate. While deciding what to steal, Peter runs into one of the estate’s residents, a beautiful, young woman named Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay). Peter immediately abandons his plans to rob the place and becomes hopelessly smitten.

Goldsman does a respectable job establishing the rules of the world he is creating, and Farrell, Findlay and Crowe are terrific in their roles. Still, more detail would make the film easier for viewers to digest and appreciate. Although movie bloat has become a problem in recent years, “Winter’s Tale” would have benefited from an increased run time.

It’s easy to imagine Goldsman adding as much as an hour to the film. The extra time would have allowed better establishment of the romantic relationship between Peter and Beverly and a considerably better understanding of the magical world they inhabit.

As is, “Winter’s Tale” is a likable romantic drama populated by excellent actors, but one can’t help but wonder how great it could have been.

DVD extras are limited to a single making-of feature. The Blu-ray combo pack contains that short plus two additional behind-the-scenes bits.

 

Enemy

2 stars
Rated R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Lionsgate
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and DirecTV on demand

With the 2013 film “Prisoners,” director Denis Villeneuve delivered a breathtaking dramatic work that left viewers contemplating everything from man’s capacity for evil to the efficacy of torture. The film also closed on a startling, unresolved note that asked us to write our own finish.

Considering the expectations established by “Prisoners,” Villeneuve’s latest project, “Enemy,” is a disappointment. One might even call the heavily symbolic movie “self indulgent.”

The project is best described as a puzzle picture, a genre made famous by directors like David Lynch, Christopher Nolan and Terry Gilliam. Sometimes these works are fantastic, and sometimes they leave viewers scratching their heads and wondering whether they’ve born witness to greatness or a two-hour train wreck. In fairness to Villeneuva, “Enemy” is neither. The movie is made skillfully, with decent production value, strong performances and a coherent structure. It is also littered with symbolism that one could spend hours deciphering if he or she were so inclined.

The best puzzle films work on multiple levels, drawing viewers into a compelling, surface-level tale that encourages them to dig beneath the outer shell in search of hidden gems. “Enemy” is missing that captivating outer layer.

The movie centers on Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), a timid history professor who discovers that a small-time movie actor named Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal) is his exact double. Immediately, Adam rents each of Anthony’s films and plans to meet his twin. While Adam’s interest is understandable, Villeneuve allows him to descend into increasing depths of obsession that are inconsistent with the character that viewers have come to know.

At first it seems that Adam is a reserved and studious man uncomfortable when pushing even minor boundaries, yet the plotting forces him into increasingly bizarre territory at a dizzying pace. This is necessary, of course, for Villeneuve to unspool his tale, but the best puzzle pictures don’t call attention to themselves.

Despite the inconsistencies in Adam, Gyllenhaal does a fine job defining the basic attributes of his two roles. Anthony is brash, self-assured and reactionary while Adam is mousy, intellectual and dull. In effect, they are polar opposites contained in perfectly matched shells. The supporting cast doesn’t do much heavy lifting, but Mélanie Laurent is solid as Adam’s girlfriend and Sarah Gadon offers a solid reading of Anthony’s wife.

Although it is difficult to find fault with the individual pieces of Villeneuve’s puzzle, the finished picture is difficult to embrace.

Blu-ray and DVD extras are limited to a single, making-of featurette.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Masters of Sex” – Season One: Initial 12 episodes of Showtime’s critically acclaimed drama based on the sex research conducted by William H. Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia E. Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).

“Some Velvet Morning”: After years apart, an older man (Stanley Tucci) tells his former mistress (Alice Eve) that he has left his wife and wants to rekindle their relationship. When she refuses him, he becomes obsessive. Written and directed by Neil LaBute.

“Blood Ties”: Thriller about a police officer (Billy Crudup) who must decide whether to stand by his principles or his criminal brother (Clive Owen). Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, James Caan and Matthias Schoenaerts also star. Written and directed by Guillaume Canet.

“A Hard Day’s Night”: Digitally restored, Criterion Collection release of director Richard Lester’s seminal 1964, music film. The black-and-white comedy was made at the height of Beatlemania and it portrays several days in the life of The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr) with each musician playing a slapstick version of himself. Of course, the film also includes a heavy helping of the band’s tunes.

“Repentance”: Thriller about a spiritual life coach (Anthony Mackie) who is abducted and terrorized by one of his clients (Forest Whitaker). Mike Epps and Sanaa Lathan also star. Co-written and directed by Philippe Caland.

“Duck Dynasty” – Season 5: Ten recent episodes of the A&E reality series focused on the Robertsons, the Louisiana family that turned its Duck Commander hunting supply business into a multi-million-dollar operation.

“Star Trek – The Next Generation” – Season Six: Second-to-last season of the long-running science-fiction show about the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis star.

“NYPD Blue” – Season 6: ABC’s long-running police drama is remembered as one of the biggest success stories in TV history, and this release includes 22 episodes. Season six was particularly noteworthy because Rick Schroder joined the cast, portraying detective Danny Sorensen. Dennis Franz, Kim Delaney, Jimmy Smits, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp and Andrea Thompson also star.

“Unforgettable” – The Second Season: This CBS police drama had a rocky start after nearly being cancelled following its first season. It seems to be on track now with a third season beginning June 29. This release contains 13 episodes, all focused on Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery), a detective with the unusual ability to remember everything she has ever seen.

“Downtown 81”: Remastered version of director Edo Bertoglio’s 1981 cinema verite movie about a struggling artist who desperately tries to sell his paintings in order to reclaim his apartment. Famed artist Jean Michel Basquiat stars as a fictionalized version of himself. Available only on demand, courtesy of Music Box Films.

“Fracknation”: Documentary film in which journalist Phelim McAleer defends the controversial practice hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“Mama’s Family” – The Complete Fourth Season: Twenty-five episodes of the 1970s sitcom inspired by a series of Vicki Lawrence comedy sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show.” The plotting centers on Thelma Harper (Lawrence) and the misadventures of her oddball family members.

 

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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