FRESH POUR: 300 – Rise of an Empire (2014) / Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. 

300 Rise of an Empire300: Rise of an Empire
Dir. Noam Murro
Warner Bros. Pictures

Did anyone ask for a sequel to 300? Between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it seems as though 2014 is the year in which we pine for the enthusiasm we had for the grindhouse-y comic book adaptations of the mid-2000s. Lord knows this is probably the most culturally relevant Frank Miller’s been in the last decade (not that that’s a good thing). Based on his unreleased prequel comic to 300, 300:Rise of an Empire is a strange beast: it’s a prequel/interquel/sequel to the original film, following the Athenians’ efforts to stymie the military threat of Persia by sea around the time of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Instead of Leonidas, we follow similarly-beefy (but significantly duller) Themistocles, played with wooden intensity by Sullivan Stapleton. Themmy is a damn sight less charismatic than the larger-than-life Gerard Butler, and his presence is missed here; however, this may be the point to Themistocles’ character, as he really is just a simple dude who wants to fight for the protection of Athens, and unite all of Greece instead of standing above them. The real star of the show is Eva Green’s Artemisia, a fierce warrior-queen who provides the vast majority of the film’s energy and fun. Everyone else is all scowls and speeches, but Eva Green smirks at you before slicing your head off, giving her a sense of humor that the rest of the dour film is missing in spades. Themistocles and Artemisia get to ham it up in a fascinatingly raunchy sex/fight scene, but that’s as far as the film’s humor really gets. (If there’s one reason to see the film, it’s to balk at the admirable silliness of this scene.)

Rise of an Empire, given its status as basically an expansion of the original film, makes frequent references to the original while suffering for it. Leonidas is shown in previous shots from the film as much as possible, Lena Headey’s Queen Gorgo is revived for a few vital scenes, and we see other characters like David Wenham’s Delios, the hunchback traitor Ephialtes, and a flashback even reveals Peter Mensah’s messenger (the guy Leonidas said “THIS IS SPARTA!” to) as a vital part of Artemisia’s backstory. While the film begins with the origin story of how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, the villain of the first film) came to be a strange, bald, nine-foot-tall god by taking a weird voodoo bath in a cave, it feels unnecessary since he very much takes a backseat to Artemisia. He’s barely seen but in a few scenes, leaving us scratching our head as to why we even needed to have that setup. While these aren’t bad in and of themselves, it makes the film feel like half of another film that someone just forgot to make until a decade later.

The film, directed by Noam Murro (somehow following an Ellen Page indie comedy Smart People with this), attempts to ape all the stylistic flourish that Zack Snyder brought to his original film, but comes short quite a bit in places. There are a few changes to the basic look: while Snyder’s film looked more like comic-book panels/Greco-Roman sculpture, this has the style of a 1980s music video, or that Marines commercial where they guy fights the dragon with a flaming sword. The grungy score by Junkie XL (?) supports this, as does Eva Green’s fabulously ample eyeliner.

In addition to that, it merely seems to try to remind people of what they like about the first movie, while being equally as ignorant of the unsettling political undertones; both movies are still about brave white people spouting platitudes about freedom while going to war against strange, mysticized brown people. Both sides have slaves that work their boats, but the Persians are shown to beat their slaves while the Athenian slaves peer up at Themistocles with respect and loyalty. It’s a weird distinction to make, and doesn’t erase the fact that the Athenians still have slaves. Still, it’s all part of the Conan-esque acceptance of its own barbarity that I don’t incredibly mind.

All in all, 300: Rise of an Empire has got its fair share of problems, and it’s a bit of a slog given that it feels like half of a movie. However, there’s some nuggets of joy in here like the stylized action sequences (before they get too repetitive) and Eva Green’s campy energy. I’d be interested to see a Lord of the Rings-esque supercut of this and the first film together to tell the whole story; maybe it’ll all feel a bit more cohesive.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

300: Rise of an Empire Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever you see floating particles (dust, ash) in the frame to give 3D customers their money’s worth
2) Drink any time you see a character from 300 crop up
3) Drink for pep talks (i.e. long-winded inspirational speeches) – there’s a lot of them.
Finish Your Drink When:
Artemisia (Eva Green) says, “You fight much harder than you fuck.”

Mr. Peabody and ShermanMr. Peabody and Sherman
Dir. Rob Minkoff
20th Century Fox

Another day, another decades-past update of a classic children’s show/comic book/cartoon – this time, we’ve got Mr. Peabody & Sherman, that time-travel segment of the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show you might remember if you now have kids. Stretching the concept into a full-length feature, Rob Minkoff and the rest at DreamWorks decide to flesh out the historical-fantasy antics of the duo – a bowtie-wearing sentient dog scientists and his adopted human son – with a subplot involving Mr. Peabody’s suitability as a parent to a human child, as well as his own anxieties about his child growing up and not needing him anymore. In the film, Peabody (Ty Burrell, channeling a Frasier Crane-esque dandiness) and Sherman (Max Charles, full of grade-school precociousness) get into trouble when Sherman gets into a fight with catty bully Penny, leading to a dinner party, a chase through history, and the potential undoing of time itself.

All of that actually sounds great on paper; I love the idea of actually questioning the basic concept behind a silly idea like Mr. Peabody and Sherman. How did a dog get custody of a child? “I earned the right in a court of law,” says Mr. Peabody. What would happen if Child Services leaped on whatever chance they could to take Sherman away from him? There’s an interesting bit of parallelism with LGBT adoption of children, with some of the challenges of single-fatherdom in there carried over from Despicable Me. Mr. Peabody’s an accomplished scientist and activist, the perfect liberal elite intellectual – and yet no matter what he does to impress (including trotting out a whole bag of tricks, from flamenco playing to flair bartending, to wow the parents of Sherman’s bully Penny), he is still not given society’s approval. It’s a curious situation to be in; this dog thinks he’s people, but he’s actually exceeded people by solving the problem of time travel. With that being said, why does this society still treat the word “dog” as a pejorative?

The film clips along at a schizophrenic pace, as is typical for a children’s film; however, unlike better kid’s movies like The LEGO Movie just a few weeks ago, it takes the lazy DreamWorks path of throwing every single gag and pun at the screen and hope that it works. Some of them do (a nerd’s Stephen Hawking lunchbox reading “A Brief History of Lunch”), while others fall flat (e.g. anything involving an exaggerated European accent, the constant cry of “I don’t get it” to point out a bad pun). The history segments are by far the best; they allow children to get an interesting (if overly simplified) primer on important events in world history, but they don’t mesh with the central story well.

One of the film’s biggest problems is that it’s very much a boy’s movie; the female characters suffer a bit in comparison. Penny ostensibly turns from bully to ally through the course of the movie, but she’s always getting Sherman in trouble, at one point nearly killing him just to force him to have fun. The film’s antagonist, Ms. Grunion, is the Delores Umbridge-y government stooge whose basic stuffiness and closed-mindedness is literally solved by finding a man. Mona Lisa is a shrieking, nagging harpy, and Penny’s mom is simply your standard mild-mannered housewife (Penny’s parents are almost literally Sam and Darren from Bewitched). With a world populated with such women, it’s no wonder Mr. Peabody is a single dad.

Despite some cool story threads set up throughout the film (risking the space-time continuum to save Mr. Peabody from a horrible death), they’re quickly dropped in favor of the next pun, pratfall or silly accent. The whole film culminates in a whack-a-doo time-paradox climax that rushes along at far too fast a clip to make any sense or to adequately solve any conflicts; it feels like the film forgets what it’s set up in order to just make a whacky physical comedy short at the end.

There’s a lot more I could say about this film, but suffice to say that, despite its basic charms, the film as a whole isn’t very good except as a basic piece of visual entertainment for kids. Yes, I know, that’s why these films are made, and the formula certainly works; however, there are much better kid’s movies out there that both adults and children can enjoy, without having to explain to your 3-year-old that the French Revolutionaries weren’t bumbling, effete morons, but people who actually did need some fricking bread.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Mr. Peabody & Sherman Drinking Game:
1) Drink for puns.
2) Drink whenever Sherman says “Mr. Peabody.”
3) Drink any time Mr. Peabody shows off a new implausibly-learned skill.
Finish Your Drink When:
Mr. Peabody says, “Sherman, I’m here to stop you from touching yourself!”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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