by Steve Habrat
Severed heads as high art? Welcome to the world of Zack Snyder’s 300, a chiseled slice of masculinity based on the comic series by Frank Miller that enjoys shouting at the top of its lungs over the endless swirl of slaughter at its center. Considered the ultimate “guy movie”, 300 looks like a painting that has sprung to spitting and snarling life as CGI blood splashes across the sea of clanking swords. This carnage is beautiful, this battle a barreling ballet of firm defiance and ferocity but one that we have seen previous times in countless other period epics of this sort, here it just boasts an extra layer of gloss. 300 sells itself on the idea that it is going to rethink that sword-and-sandals epic and to an extent it does, that is if any of what 300 has to offer came as a surprise to the audience. It is hard to believe that Snyder and Warner Bros. would be so eager to show us everything their film had to offer before we have even seen it but that is the sad truth about 300. If you saw the trailer for the movie, you basically saw the best parts of this picture. The only thing you are missing out on is the severed limbs that dance across the screen and a soft-core sex scene that further earns the R-rating for nudity. Let’s be honest here, you are not coming into this film to hear any of these beefcakes deliver their lines. You came to this party for the sex and violence, now get in line.
300 begins with a flashback narrated by Dilios (Played by David Wenham), a Spartan solider, who explains the back-story and training of Leonidas, the man who would become king of Sparta. The back-story details the fierce training that a Spartan child goes through, molding them into hardened warriors hungry for battle and victory. The film then flashes ahead and introduces us to adult Leonidas (Played by Gerard Butler), who is now the valiant king of Sparta. One peaceful day, a Persian messenger rides into Sparta and demands that all of the people of Sparta submit to God-King Xerxes (Played by Rodrigo Santoro). King Leonidas and his wife, Queen Gorgo (Played by Lena Headey), refuse to submit to the God-King and his loyal group of Spartan soldiers kick the messenger and his accompanying soldiers down the biggest well you have ever laid eyes on. Leonidas knows that murdering the messenger has provoked a Persian attack so he seeks out the Ephors, a corrupt group of leprosy-ridden priests who have to give to okay for war. The Ephors refuse to give their blessing to Leonidas and facing annihilation at the hands of the Persians, the brave King rounds up 300 of his bravest and strongest soldiers to meet the Persians at Thermopylae, where the Persians’ numbers will count for nothing against the Spartan’s superior fighting techniques. Meanwhile, Gorgo has to deal with corrupt politicians behind the walls of Sparta.
The ultimate exercise in visual brawn over screenplay brain, 300 gets far despite not having much going on upstairs. It is no secret that many have viewed 300 as a conservative comment on the War on Terror and as you look closer, it is easy to see how history has been used to mirror present day realities. The problem with 300 is that it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the War on Terror and instead glorifies the art of war, putting more emphasis on the art than the horrors of battle. 300 also seems to exists to feed the masculine egos of all the alpha males who hang on every shriek that erupts from the mouths of the Spartans. Anyone who lacks chest hair practically grows some instantly just by touching the DVD case. And while there is some flexing action to be found, most of the fighting has been already glimpsed in the spirited trailer that almost everyone has seen. There is some fun to be had in the montages of combat but it becomes a bit redundant and meaningless as the Spartans hack their way through one eccentric clan after another. It begins to feel like a video game after a while, complete with boss rounds.
The one thing I have to praise Snyder for is the way that he casts a group of unknown actors and actresses. This allows the characters of 300 to really come to life rather than be overshadowed by a familiar face that is plastered all over the tabloids. Gerard Butler disappears into the role of King Leonidas and now it is hard for me to take him seriously in other roles that he tackles. A blessing and a curse, I’m afraid. Butler does do a pretty good job with the one–dimensional role that Snyder dumps on him. All the role requires is a perfect physique and the ability to yell really loud. Luckily, Butler becomes a teeth-gritting force that does allow affection to bleed through his masculine intensity. Lena Headey is present for eye-candy but she insists on have the strength of twenty Spartan men, which is welcome in this sea of alpha males. Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes is asked to portray the God-King as an ostentatious ruler who is clearly a homosexual. While I understand he is supposed to be the villain here, you can’t help but pick up on negative light shed on his sexuality, which further adds to the conservative reading of the film. The other familiar face is Michael Fassbender as Stelios, an eager warrior who gets the film’s coolest line. Naturally, he is a standout here, which should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with him.
While it may rethink the sword-and-sandals epic visually, 300 doesn’t do much for narrative but you don’t really care. There is plenty here to entertain you for its two hour runtime and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The battle between the masked Immortals and the Spartans is the highlight of the film and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see the superior fighting style of the Spartans (they brag about it enough!). Still, you can’t help but yearn for more flesh and blood authenticity in all the artificiality but what you see is what you get. You will also long for some sort of a surprise but very few will come your way, so don’t hold your breath. Grabbing history by the hair, dousing it in comic book colors, and then doing a bit of lazy rewiring, Snyder takes a step back from the incisive filmmaking and storytelling that he showed us with his spry remake of Dawn of the Dead. With 300, he just can’t seem to shake his obsessive infatuation with the eye candy and that is the ultimate disappointment. Still, you’ll root for these 300 Spartans until the very end even if you know the outcome. So sit back, crack open a PBR, and marvel at the many ways that severed heads can spin through the air.
300 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Spirit (2008)
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Sin City tried to be funny and refused to take any of its characters seriously. Don’t want to? Yeah, I don’t blame you. Director Frank Miller (Yes, the comic book writer) seems to not be able to shake the visual approach of his 2005 film Sin City (Remember, he co-directed Sin City with Robert Rodriguez) and carries the curious look over to The Spirit, an overly campy and convoluted superhero film based off the comic strip by Will Eisner. Miller so desperately wanted to film a moving comic strip that he pays absolutely no attention to the storyline or the characters and instead obsessively pours over the visual look of his film. The Spirit is a visual knockout, that I can say, but the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired. The storyline is monotonous and at times almost unintelligible and the hero is so dull that you may find yourself forgetting to root for him. Miller pits this square against the Octopus, a villain that goes through more wardrobe changes in this film than any pop singer at a concert. Stir in a handful of hot babes and you have an over seasoned recipe for disaster.
The Spirit takes us to Central City and introduces us to Denny Colt (Played by Gabriel Macht), an undead police officer who prowls the streets of the city as the Spirit, a masked crime fighter/detective. The Spirit receives a phone call one evening from Detective Sussman (Played by Dan Gerrity) about something strange going on down by an old shipwreck on the outskirts of Central City. The Spirit makes his way to the shipwreck where he bumps in to a femme fatale from his past, Sand Saref (Played by Eva Mendes), who is trying to make off with two mysterious crates. Saref is foiled by the Spirit’s arch nemesis the Octopus (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), a villain in one awful costume after another. After gunning down Sussman and forcing Saref to leave one of the crates behind, the Octopus claims it for himself and calls in his sidekick Silken Floss (Played by Scarlett Johansson) and his army of cloned henchmen (All played by Louis Lombardi). The Spirit confronts the Octopus and the two engage in a massive brawl that ends with the Octopus telling the Spirit that they share a connection. As the Spirit investigates Sand Saref’s reemergence in Central City and his mysterious connection to the Octopus, the Spirit discovers that the Octopus is on a quest for immortality, a quest that could threaten the entire city.
Shallow right from the beginning, Miller never allows us to really get to know Denny Colt, the man behind the fedora and mask. He sprints around rooftops in all black with a fluttering red tie as he explains to us in a voiceover that he is “in love with his city,” she always “provides” for him, and that his “city screams.” As the Spirit, Denny can take quite a bit of punishment because he is, well, a spirit. He spends most of the film outrunning an otherworldly Angel of Death called Lorelei (Played by Jaime King), who coaxes him into the afterlife where he belongs. All of this is supposed to count as character development throughout The Spirit but it is mostly there to lead to one trippy sequence after another. A scene where the Spirit drifts through an afterlife hallucination sure does radiate vision that would have looked marvelous in a comic book but just seems pointless on the big screen. In fact, almost everything in The Spirit is meaningless and silly, almost like Miller just smashed a bunch of images together that he thought would look great. This is even more apparent in the Octopus, who dressed up in one ridiculous costume after another as he paces around plotting how to kill the Spirit. He is just bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, no explanation required.
Then there is the humor and tongue and cheek antics that further make The Spirit the eye-rolling experience that it is. It tries to wink at us even thought it wants you to think that it is really cool. Take things seriously but not too seriously, says Miller! Miller blends together slang from the 1940’s with modern day technology in an effort to really give his universe some pizzazz but you are left wondering why he didn’t just stick to the 40’s all together. The performances by everyone involved seem a bit confused, diffident, or disinterested, no one daring to do the unthinkable and stand out. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been hard considering the lifeless script that Miller provides. The driest is without quest Macht as Denny Colt/The Spirit, who appears to be sleepwalking through the entire film. When he is pitted against Jackson’s Octopus, he practically disappears from the frame but not because Jackson is particularly good, just that he holds the screen better than Macht. Jackson, meanwhile, barks through dialogue like “toilets are always funny” as he smashes the Spirit over the head with a porcelain throne. He is more comical than sinister. The ladies are all there to be sexy, mostly Mendes who gets to shed her clothes in one scene and show off her backside, a scene just to drive fanboys wild. I hate to break it to Miller but this still does nothing to liven things up. Then there is Lombardi as the sea of cloned henchmen who are more irritating than funny like they are supposed to be.
It really became a chore to not nod off while watching The Spirit and I usually never have that problem. This film is like watching glowing white blood dry (trust me, there is glowing white blood in The Spirit). There is nothing in the way of remarkable action, no character worth giving a damn about, and a plot line that was so disjointed and confusing that I couldn’t get swept up in the story. Maybe if you zapped the dialogue out of the film and played a collection of songs over the images, it would make for one hell of a music video (it is just a suggestion). It is obvious that if Miller had a good script, he could make something that would really be a must-see but The Spirit is just not that film. I’d be interested to see if he ever returns to filmmaking but let’s hope he doesn’t write it. Sadly, it feels like Miller ripped off his own material and we are all left wishing that he would have made Sin City 2. Overall, if you insist on watching The Spirit, make sure you down an energy drink, munch on plenty of sugary candy, and maybe even have a pot of coffee on hand. You are going to need it if you are going to get through this dud. I guess the Spirit should have stuck to haunting the pages of comic books.
The Spirit is available on Blu-ray and DVD.