Skip to main content

Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender!


300
(2006)

I’ll readily admit to being surprised by the success of 300, but I guess Warner Bros were too; they expected takings more on a par with Sin City. What they got was a bit of a monster, with a total gross approaching half a billion dollars. The common link between the two is Frank Miller, a comic book writer of inclement disposition and extreme right wing leanings; maybe a bit like John Milius without the sense of humour. Or directorial ability (see The Spirit for evidence). I didn’t care much for Sin City, but it was a comic book aficiando’s wet dream. Understandably, as it adopted the visual stylings of the medium that inspired it. Zach Snyder’s film does the same thing, just with added speed-ramping.


Snyder’s an interesting director, not so much in terms of evidencing a powerful intellect but because his films are visually so compelling. He’s like a dimmer version of the Wachowski siblings in that regard (although, arguably, there’s a thin line between intellectual and pretentious, and they teeter on the brink between the two). His Dawn of the Dead remake was a pleasant surprise, particularly during the first act where the sense of danger was ferociously palpable. And I liked Watchmen for the most part, even if it displayed a penchant for gore that distracted from the thematic content (this is why I suggest that he’s hardly cerebral in his instincts). Left to his own devices he “auteured” into existence the wet dream silliness of Sucker Punch. But, quite possibly (likely even, given the trailers), the combination of his distinctive style (much more suited to the comic book medium than his producer) and Christopher Nolan’s resolute braininess will make Man of Steel satisfying nourishment on all levels. We’ll see.


With 300, Snyder weakly argues that he is having his cake. And then attempts to eat it too. Against criticisms of the film’s thrall to the fascistic designs of its heroes, he responds that it is a tale told by an unreliable narrator (David Wenham’s Dillios). It’s an excuse for everything from the fantasy elements, to the vilification of the horrid Persians, to the disgust for anything that does not celebrate the sculpted body-beautiful. Arguing that it is “just a fantasy” about a bunch of guys kicking the shit out of each other doesn’t really let him off the hook for Miller’s overt identification with the city-state and its harsh standards. Nor it does explain some of the inconsistencies (Gerard Butler’s Leonidas isn’t just a cold-blooded killer; rather than disdain Ephialtes the hunchback he treats him respectfully – hardly the sort of image Dillios would be presenting of the King to the troops back home). The subtext is; these are a tough, callous people (except when it comes to showing a hero’s love for a wife or a son, of course) but that’s what you need to be a hero. And you should be in awe of them.


But, at the same time, Snyder has a point. This is a resolutely empty-headed film. Snyder really does stuff because it’s cool, and tries to justify it later (if he’s challenged); it’s why Watchmen (which, as I say, I like) is all about emulating the look of the comic (except where Snyder’s got something “cooler” in mind) but rarely engages fully with its ideas. Here, the characters don’t even qualify as two-dimensional (this might be why Butler is so effective). And the plot amounts to; Leonidas takes 300 of his men off to face King Xerxes because he can’t declare war. They fight. Then fight some more. Then, well, we know what happened to the 300 but I won’t spoil it. There are some lame attempts to create political intrigue at home, which involve Dominic West being an absolute stinker and Lena Headey taking her top off, but these amount to little more than casting about for breathing space between dust-ups. 


While the visual palate Snyder adopts is striking, I have to admit I found it only intermittently engaging. It encourages immersion in a hyperreal fantasy landscape that is as shallow and insubstantial as all the other elements. Where Snyder succeeds is in making it seamless; he has built a self-contained world here, like it or not.


Which makes you wonder why the actors spent so long down the gym (it appears they actually did reconfigure themselves with those bodacious bods, although there’s little doubt that they were shined-up in post); all the better to sell their homoerotic camaraderie? I did wonder if Xerxes was presented as slightly effeminate in order to state to those doubting that, yes, these Spartans are all man.


The treatment of Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) struck me as the most objectionable of the film’s many less-than-salubrious statements. As mentioned, Leonidas shows great empathy with him when he volunteers to fight. Such are his deformities that he would be useless in battle, the King tells him. Ephialtes’ response is to show that weakness of body is a reflection of weakness of moral fibre; off he goes to betray the Spartans. Clearly, then, the Spartans eugenics programme was a laudable one, and Ephialtes’ parents were wrong to save him.


We see similar aberrations on the Persian side (giants with crab arms, slavering giant gimps) and in the oracles Leonidas must defer to at the outset (the Ephors, who are shown to be ethically corrupt and said to be the inbred; it is unclear how the latter is supposed to be the case, as the Spartans provide them with a steady flow of young maidens). Then there is the dismissal of Athenians as “boy-lovers”, which would like to preclude any Spartan inclinations in that direction. Snyder will no doubt claim this is all a consequence of Dillios’ narrative adornments, but this is a filmmaker whose presiding motivation is how air-punching he can make a sequence. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…


There’s no doubt that Butler gives it his all in the lead role. It’s kept him in starring parts since, but since their quality has been resoundingly dubious (a supporting turn in Coriolanus aside) one wonders whether this was such a blessing. Revisiting the movie, the presence of Michael Fassbender (in his first big screen part) as Stelios is the most significant surprise. He’s okay, but one-note shouting isn’t really using him to the best of his abilities. He also resembles Christopher Lambert in Greystoke; it’s the flowing locks, I think.


The dialogue is a progressively more inane string of clichés that are punchy yet resoundingly hollow (“Give them nothing. But take from them everything!”, “Today, no Spartan dies!” – wait, I thought you all wanted to die, “Tonight, we dine in hell!”). It’s tiresomely bombastic stuff.


The staging is impressive but, like the dialogue, becomes repetitive and wearying; Leonidas’ fight with a giant gimp man is probably the highlight, as it actually produces tension. Most of the mayhem is well-choreographed but uninvolving.


You come away from the film knowing bollocks-all about Sparta, aside from the a pre-amble about how the children are brought up as soldiers; more resonant are their rallying grunts, making them sound like a team of American footballers. The shame of it is, Michael Mann was planning a film about this subject for years (Gates of Fire) that undoubtedly would have had engaged with the subject with it’s own unique style and actually shown some insights into the Spartan people and the Battle of Thermopylae. There’s no hope for it now, alas, Meanwhile, an optimistic Warner Bros has opted for that least auspicious of follow-ups; a prequel.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
(SPOILERS) His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

Hey, everybody. The bellboy's here.

Four Rooms (1995)
(SPOILERS) I had an idea that I’d only seen part of Four Rooms previously, and having now definitively watched the entire thing, I can see where that notion sprang from. It’s a picture that actively encourages you to think it never existed. Much of it isn’t even actively terrible – although, at the same time, it couldn’t be labelled remotely good– but it’s so utterly lethargic, so lacking in the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that characterises these filmmakers at their best – and yes, I’m including Rodriguez, although it’s a very limited corner for him – that it’s very easy to banish the entire misbegotten enterprise from your mind.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch (2015)
(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.


Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably …