Friday, March 16, 2007

Madame de . . . / (The Earrings of Madame de . . . ) - Movie Review

Madame de... / (The Earrings of Madame de . . . ) (1953)

Max Ophüls, for some ungodly reason has rarely received the international fame and recognition of a Hitchcock, Ford or even Welles. Certainly his claim to being one of the great auteurs of the twentieth century is on par with all three giants. He shares a love of fluid tracking shots with Hitchcock, a solid sense of composition and tight narrative flow akin to Ford. And like Welles, his deliriously cinematic oeuvre runs to a relatively low output of films – each one as memorable as the chubby boy geniuses.

For the lucky cinemagoers in the tri-state area, his 1953 masterpiece, “Madame de . . .” has been revived at Film Forum in a lovely new print courtesy of Janus Films. The original title is “Madame de . . .” and for the purposes of consistency, we are sticking with that one! (The English title seems far too concerned with a plot device and not the heart of the film.) “Madame de . . .” is set in the demimondaine realm of the Parisian aristocracy. We meet Madame de . . . (her full name is never revealed in one of the films many clever bits) as she rummages through her expansive wardrobe searching for a pair of earrings that she has decided to sell in order to help chisel away at her substantial debt. A debt that she obviously owes to hundreds of furriers, milliners and dressmakers throughout the finer neighborhoods of Paris. Seriously kids, this bitch can shop with the best of them.

“Madame de . . . " is a movielovers dream for various reasons. First, its sumptuous production values that provide a view into a lost world of manners and civility that frame the social canvas for this elegant comedy of errors. The Madame and her husband, the General exist in an echelon of Paris that is reserved for impeccable manners, wit and wordplay that belie their very carnal desires simmering underneath. Wherein today’s cinema we might encounter a cheating spouse and cuckolded husband, in Ophüls’ world, sex is reduced to a mutual understanding between consenting adults that seems at first to be less important than issues of mutual respect, trust and keeping up appearances.

Flirting is encouraged, affairs are tolerated, but falling in love and lying about it are cause for dueling. It is a world where affairs of the flesh are less volatile than affairs of the heart. Once Madame de has entered willingly into her ‘folie a deux’ with a dashing diplomat, her fate is sealed. Their erotically charged dance of love is evocated in a series of waltzes from various parties and bal masqués that blur into one deliciously ripe setpiece filled with lust, admiration and comic asides. It is a justifiably famous sequence made more so by the caliber of its players.

As Madame de, the legendary Danielle Darrieux shimmers in her Belle Époque finery. At first, petulant and incorrigibly haughty, she seems incapable of betraying anything besides her wardrobe. For here is a woman who drifts along on the caprices of fashion, without ever bothering to observe the mysteries that lie underneath. As the game of love proceeds to its inevitably complicated finale – she will learn that the costs of betraying her husband, her lover and worst of all, her own soul will leave her morally bankrupt.

The eternally debonair Charles Boyer is simply superb as le General. His military bearing and training carry him through the routine ordeals of such an oft played courting ritual, but his unwavering sense of honor prevent him from admitting defeat in the face of his wife’s genuine shift in affections. Not that the General is beyond reproach. We witness his frightfully formal and altogether polite discarding of a mistress who has fallen out of favor early in the film. Her dismissal is all the more ripe with irony since the General has decided to bestow a parting gift on the teary eyed tramp, the earrings that his wife has sold in order to maintain her lavish lifestyle. How the earrings will return into his wife’s possession and their ultimate fate we leave up to the viewer to witness.

The Baron is portrayed by one of cinema’s other great directors. The fact that Vittorio De Sica helmed such masterpieces as: Shoeshine”, “Bicycle Thieves”, “Umberto D. and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis; along with slightly lesser but equally memorable films like: Miracle in Milan”, “Indiscretion of an American Wife”, “Two Women”, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage, Italian Style – and was able to act as well as he does in “Madame de . . .” seems an obscenely rich overabundance of talent. His Baron is more than the catalyst for the lead couples’ marital meltdown. Gallant, dashing and passionately devoted to his new found inamorata, he in many ways has the most difficult role to eschew. Typically lovestruck dupe is hardly the stuff of great performances. Which makes De Sica’s charming and effortless turn all the more appreciable.

Ophüls’ attention to detail rivals Von Stroheim’s notorious obsessive compulsiveness. As elegant, soignée and ephemeral as the cinematic playground of “Madame de . . .” might seem, the consistency of design and largesse of visual riches involves us completely. Every frame seems suitable for framing. But this is not merely a pretty painting come to life. While some fools have accused Ophüls of swimming in his operatic camera movements, they fail to see that nothing escapes his eye. The physical world of Madame de is as important as her psychological one.

“Madame de . . . “ is a portrait of three adults who act nobly throughout an ignoble scandal. While the earrings of the English title act as a metaphor for love – lost and found, it is merely the conduit and not the heart of the movie. The heart lies within Ophüls enchanted lens. In the textures, the atmosphere, the music and the movement of his unstoppable camera. He sweeps the audience away into a dreamlike state, where we begin to feel the same intoxication of love that overwhelms Madame de, in one of her many fainting spells.

Rarely has a film been met with such universal acclaim. Andrew Sarris names it his choice for “The Greatest Film of All Time”. His arch-nemesis Pauline Kael once called it “perfection” and “romantic, seductive, and at times, almost hypnotic”. Roger Ebert claims that “Madame de . . .” is “one of the great pleasures of the cinema”. For a true movielover, there can hardly be better reason to rejoice, than to be able to see this glorious vintage film flickering across the silver screen once more. Stop what you’re doing and go see it. Now! Bless you all!

(Endnote: One final parting thought on this masterful piece of moviemaking that bridges the all too contentious ports of art and entertainment: for all the DVDs, videos, internet movie downloading and zillion cable channels out in today’s markets, the films of Max Ophüls are still criminally overlooked. Only one, his brilliant final masterpiece “Lola Montès” is currently available on DVD. And people have the unmitigated gall to protest the war in Iraq. Here is the real crime against humanity! Write your congressman/woman and demand the release of Ophüls greatest works onto DVD today!)

Directed by Max Ophüls
Screenplay by Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls and Annette Wademant
Based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin

Charles Boyer as Général André de . . .
Danielle Darrieux as Comtesse Louise de . . .
Vittorio De Sica as Baron Fabrizio Donati
Jean Debucourt as Monsieur Rémy
Jean Galland as Monsieur de Bernac
Mireille Perrey as La Nourrice
Paul Azaïs as Le premier cocher
Hubert Noël as Henri de Maleville
Lia Di Leo as Lola
Madeleine Barbulée as Une amie de Madame de . . .
Charles Bayard as Un convive
Jacques Beauvais as Un majordome
Gérard Buhr as Le douanier
Jean Degrave as Le clubman
Claire Duhamel as La demoiselle de compagnie
Guy Favières as Julien
Émile Genevois as Un soldat
Serge Lecointe as Jérome Rémy
Franck Maurice as Un témoin
Max Mégy as Un domestique
Daniel Mendaille as Un passant
Albert Michel Le second cocher
Robert Moor as Un diplomate
Georges Paulais as Le premier témoin du duel
Léon Pauléon as Un huissier
Colette Régis as Vendeuse de cierges
Louis Saintève as Un passant
Michel Salina as Un témoin
Germaine Stainval as L’ambassadrice
Jean Toulout as Le doyen du corps diplomatique
Roger Vincent as Le second témoin du duel
Georges Vitray as Vieux reporter
Léon Walther as L’administrateur
René Worms as Un convive

Cinematography by Christian Matras
Film Editing by Borys Lewin
Costume Design by Georges Annenkov and Rosine Delamare
Original Music by Oscar Straus and Georges Van Parys
Production Design by Jean d’Eaubonne
Makeup by Carmen Brel

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The Wind That Shakes the Barley - Movie Review

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

“I sat within the valley green, I sat me with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love
The old for her, the new that made me think on Ireland dearly
While soft the wind blew down the glen and shook the golden barley”

- by Robert Dwyer Joyce

Is Ken Loach the best unheard of director working today? Well, according to the numerous international film awards he’s received over his four decades long career, he very well might be. Beginning with his startling feature length film debut in 1967, the wonderfully unsung “Poor Cow” (Well, unsung by all save Steven Soderbergh who dared to make a sequel of sorts some thirty two years after, the very underrated “The Limey” which we think is one of Steven’s best. Go rent both!), Ken Loach has dared to dwell among the bottom feeders of modern moviemaking subjects – the working man. Throughout the years, he has tackled issues of poverty, racism, politics, abuse, alcoholism and all around nasty bits of everyday life that most folks would rather see swept under their Ikea rug than plastered onto their neighborhood movie screen. And so, for most moviegoers, Mr. Loach has escaped the fame and notoriety of legions of his less talented compatriots. Pity.

While the movie masses may return empty stares at the sound of his name, Ken Loach has certainly not escaped the eyes and ears and thunderously clapping hands of his peers, critics and international film festival panelists who have awarded him the top honors at the Berlin International Film Festival, the British Independent Film Festival, the César Awards, the European Film Awards, the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and of course his handsome showing at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival where seven of his movies have earned laurels and in 2004, he walked off with the 30th Anniversary Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for his entire body of work! (And Lord knows when it comes to Film Festival juries, the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes is our favorite. For their name alone.)

His latest film to win the top honors at Cannes, has finally arrived, almost a year after its win. Nice. A bloody fucking year of sitting through crap like Disneyfied pirates and Chevy Chase remakes. Frigging film distributors. In any event, we are thrilled to report that the wait has been well worth the honor of sitting in a darkened theatre and watching “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, Loach’s look at the Irish fight for independence from England.

Cillian Murphy, who might very well be the most talented actor of his generation (he has our vote after his brilliant and varied turns in “Breakfast on Pluto”, “Red Eye”, “28 Days Later”, “Batman Begins” and “Cold Mountain”), headlines the period piece as Damien O’Donovan, a budding young doctor who is planning on furthering his studies in England until one too many encounters with the thuggish “Black & Tan” goons leads to a moral awakening. He realizes that his beloved country and mates need him more than the British medical establishment.

He decides to take the fateful step of joining the Irish Republican Army, alongside his brother Teddy, played by one fine doorful of a man by the name of Padraic Delaney . . . whew! (That’s it, pack our bags, we’re County Cork bound!)

Together with assorted mates and roughs, including the very fine actor Liam Cunningham as the elder statesman of the group, Dan, the Irish rebels launch small but keenly felt attacks against the bullying Brits that are terrorizing their countryside. And terror is indeed the word. For daring to speak in their native tongue of Gaelic qualifies one poor sod to a beating so brutal it snuffs the life out of him. The message is clear: the Irish are nothing but second rate animals in the eyes of the British army.

Now, while other directors may have focused on the epic struggle for freedom through the eyes of a legendary historical figure like Neil Jordan did in “Michael Collins”, Ken Loach approaches the material with his trademark viewpoint of the working man. In this case, the two brothers who will come to symbolize the divided nation’s internal bickering between the degrees of freedom they will eventually receive for their sacrifices.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is an extraordinarily powerful film in its brilliant use of subdued violence. Not that there is a lack of bloodshed here, but rather it is not the focus. While we never see the vicious beating given to the young lad who refused to speak in English, we are made more than aware of the horrible aftermath. The scenes that do contain exchange of bullets are mercilessly swift and punctual, as if to mirror the tactics of surprise and efficiency on the part of the IRA. This is a film that longs to depict violence as abhorrent, rather than sensual.

There are many reasons to enjoy “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”. The uniformity of fine performances, in particular from Murphy, Delaney and Cunningham. The fine use of the rural Irish landscape to frame the bloody fight for freedom. While Loach’s approach never ventures too far into Malick territory, the lushness of the Irish green and the quiet villages that dot the horizon offer a curiously becalming setting for a tale of guerrilla warfare. While we’re not recommending that every film focusing on warfare be set inside a picture postcard, it does honor the history as well as provide brief shelter from the storm.
A storm of righteous indignity against their second class citizen status, which causes great heartbreak amongst the clan when they are forced to turn on their own. If ever the absurdity of war lent itself to a storyline, this is it. For how does one engage in guerilla warfare without endangering the lives of innocents? An impossible situation. For every step they gain against the Brits, they are forced to sacrifice an ally or member of their support network.

But Loach is not satisfied with merely depicting their brave struggle for emancipation. The film reaches a midway point that is startling in its shift of attitudes and pacing. For suddenly, out of the blue the British seem to have acquiesced to their demands. A “Cease Fire” has been declared and Ireland earns the right to be recognized as the Irish Free State, consisting of twenty six of its thirty two counties. The only catch was, that England retained the right to govern them and every Irishman had to swear an oath of allegiance to good King George V!

Hardly the stuff worth dying for, in Damien’s eyes. His brother Teddy however, seems to recognize that this might be all they could hope for under the Empire’s firm grasp. And so, brother goes to war against brother as Damien returns to the rebel forces and Teddy joins the newfound Irish military, under the rule of England. It is here that the film falters, but thankfully never completely falls. For in discussing the various political angles, machinations and complexities; Ken Loach’s famed improvisatory manner with dialogue and actors sells the movie short. Briefly! In order for us to accept that brother would fight brother at this stage of the game, it would have required a beautifully scripted scene that could handle the emotional as well as the historical divide. Sadly, there is not. What we get instead is a series of truncated complaints and declarations of wounded pride that may feel emotionally honest on the part of each actor, but do little to strengthen their position in our minds.

Thankfully, the film will recover once it continues its well crafted depictions of warfare, this time with the required emphasis on the interpersonal. As Damien and Teddy plunge headfirst towards their inevitable doom, we are carried along on the crest of their passion and fortitude. We care for these men, and their shattered relationship. The ending more than earns its tears and bloodshed, even if it had to struggle up that final hill. We encourage you to see “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, whether it is for the obvious parallels to the present day world warfare culture or to take a slice of history home with you. A bloody and oft times painful slice to swallow, but a decidedly cinematic one. Bless you all!

Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty

Cillian Murphy as Damien
Padraic Delaney as Teddy
Liam Cunningham as Dan
Gerard Kearney as Donnacha
William Ruane as Gogan
Kieran Aherne as Sweeney
Roger Allam as Sir John Hamilton
Laurence Barry as Micheail
Sabrina Barry as Julia
Frank Bourke as Leo
John Crean as Chris
Máirtín de Cógáin as Sean
Keith Dunphy as Terence
Orla Fitzgerald as Sinead
Kiernan Hegarty as Francis
Myles Horgan as Rory
Bill Hurst as Major of the British Army
Damien Kearney as Finbar
Fiona Lawton as Lily
Martin Lucey as Congo
Mary Murphy as Bernadette
Shane Nott as Ned
Mary O’Riordan as Peggy

Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Film Editing by Jonathan Morris
Original Music by George Fenton
Costume Design by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Production Design by Fergus Clegg
Art Direction by Michael Higgins and Mark Lowry


Beyond the Gates / (Shooting Dogs) - Movie Review

Beyond the Gates (Shooting Dogs) 2005

Hey, kids! Want to see a good movie about the Rwandan genocide? Anyone? Wait! Where are you going! Sigh. Well, we’ll tell you about it anyway. “Beyond the Gates” (Originally titled “Shooting Dogs” in the U.K.) is the latest flick to tackle the steamy political milieu surrounding the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. As we now know, ‘cause Don Cheadle told us so; roughly one million Rwandans were slaughtered based on their ethnic background. Who wouldn’t want to see another movie that deals with that fun topic?
Now, before you backclick away from us, and log onto your preferred porn site please take a moment to consider the reasons to go see this movie.

1. Michael Caton-Jones. The Scottish born director who helmed the marvelously entertaining “Scandal” in 1989, dealing with the media circus surrounding the legendary “Profumo Sex Scandal” of London’s Swinging Sixties, is also responsible for the absorbing adaptation of Tobias Wolff’sThis Boy’s Life”, featuring blistering turns by Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and a very young Leonardo DiCaprio; as well as the solid costume epic “Rob Roy”, which had the gross misfortune of being released the same year as “Braveheart”. Apparently moviegoers only had the time and energy for one Scottish history lesson that year, and they picked the wrong one!

2. John Hurt. The elder statesman of British character actors has been charming audiences and impressing the critics since his early days in the Oscar winning “A Man for All Seasons. A veteran of both “Scandal” and “Rob Roy”, as well as a double Oscar nominee for his beautifully etched supporting turn in Alan Parker’s scalding “Midnight Express” in 1978; and for his lead role as John Merrick in David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man in 1980. Mr. Hurt has over one hundred film roles to his credit, and rarely has he been less than convincing, and often quite brilliant. He is that rare breed of actor who can scale the heights of melodrama with scenery chewing delight and scale down his performances to a grandly eloquent turn. As he does here with his perfectly honed turn as the parish priest who finds himself in charge of hundreds of refugees fleeing the ethnic cleansing of the murderous Hutu militia.

3. Hugh Dancy. This baby faced beauty, has been slowly creeping up the glory clutching ladder of young turks to carve his name into the short roster of young actors to be watched. And while we can think of severely scenarios that we’d like to watch young Mister Dancy in, they usually involve Baby Oil and arm restraints. Thankfully his strong turns in Ridley Scott’sBlack Hawk Down”, the mini-series adaptation of George Eliot’sDaniel Deronda”, and his Emmy nominated role as the Earl of Essex opposite her majesty, Helen Mirren in “Elizabeth I” have earned him respect for his acting chops as well as for his finely chiseled chin. Ahem.

4. The message. Since, the earliest days of flickers – film has often looked to history and some of its darkest passages for its source material. Whether we are being asked to open our eyes to social injustices, the horrors of war or mankind’s eternal commitment to inflict pain upon each other; screenwriters and directors have often tackled subjects that do not scream “Fun Night at the Movies”. But, one must still ask the question - why? For surely, besides the inevitable Awards attention and the feeling of contributing to a “cause”, the subject matter is typically smothered in routine melodramatics or worse, painfully disparate genre theatrics.

The best films containing a political or social message are the ones that manage to impart the horrors of reality, while simultaneously telling a cinematic story that doesn’t undercut the truth or drown the subject in a miasma of false theatrics. In other words, damn few movies.

Beyond the Gates” works beautifully when it dares to show the depths of depravity mankind is capable of committing. Friend turned into enemy, the limp and all too transparent rationale behind the political decisions, the cost of sacrificing one's beliefs. While “Hotel Rwanda” focused on the heroism and bravery of one lone voice amidst the bloody storm, “Beyond the Gates” throws its lens onto the atrocities that were allowed to be committed when the West turned its collective gaze away from the bloodshed.

The setting is the Ecole Technique Officielle in Kigali, a real school where the fictional Father Christopher played by John Hurt and one of his young teachers, Joe Connor portrayed by Hugh Dancy are forced to deal with the horrors when thousands of refugees show up on their doorstep as the killings begin. For as the Hutu militia begin to hack away at the populace with rusty machetes, a small troop of Belgian representatives of UN peacekeepers defends their base at the Ecole and attempts to keep the peace behind the gates.

As the food begins to run out, and disease and panic start to overtake the refugees – the fear of an all out attack by the gathering hordes of Hutus becomes very real. A fear that will grip the refugees and cause them to risk their lives in attempting an escape. It is a horrible moment, when the Hutu descend in a bloodthirsty rage and massacre the few dissenters a few yards from their protective barrier. A moment that painfully foreshadows the remaining refugees inevitable fate.

What this film does manage to do quite well is to depict the painfully blunt order of events that led to the genocide. We watch through young Joe’s eyes as his charmingly rustic town, where he has chosen to help the “underprivileged” begins to fester with ethnic hatred. He runs into a reporter chum who has witnessed the first stirrings of violence and learns of the racial vitriol between the Hutu and the Tutsis. His awareness of the political situation is reflected in Father Christopher’s awakening to the spiritual depravity of his neighbors. Both men are made to reexamine their beliefs in the good of mankind from opposite perspectives. One will learn that “good intentions” are not enough to overcome monstrous obstacles and the other will learn that “faith and trust” are not enough to forgive or to forget acts of violence.

While we can sit back and admire the directorial flair of Caton-Jones, the leading man skills of Hugh Dancy and the quiet grace of John Hurt in one of his better roles, the focus will remain on the horrible acts of cruelty. The final moments after the departure of the UN troops is devastating. We watch as the life saving trucks filled with refugees speed off in a dust cloud, and a Hutu leader yells out for the “work to begin”. The camera remains stationary as the Hutu gunmen and machete wielding murderers cry out with their bloodthirst and begin to run towards the barricades. The screams of the refugees are all that are needed to understand their final fate.

While the coda that follows the massacre may tie up the final bits of storyline, and attempt to rationalize the abandonment of a doomed nation – it doesn’t suffice. We all know deep down in our hearts and minds, why this happened. The Rwandan genocide happened because the West chose to ignore the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Their skin color, their poverty, their lack of any potentially money making resource for outsiders to exploit dug their collective graves. In the history of mankind, there has never been a “just cause” that propelled a powerful nation to liberate a desperate people from bloodshed. Mighty nations have always invaded other countries in the name of money or power, and never for humanitarian reasons. A simple and painful fact.

As simple and painful as the end credits that reveal some fascinating facts behind the making of this movie that we will leave for the viewer to experience. All we can say is that it is astounding in its ability to hammer at your emotions.

And so dear readers we are faced with the daunting task of recommending a fine British import that dares to expose the still fresh scars of the civilized world’s most recent embarrassing blunder. But, hey, you can all just relax and opt not to see this film. After all it might actually get you to donate money, or call your senator or develop a conscience. Who knows? And if not, you can always wait five or ten years when Reese Witherspoon stars as a plucky gal reporter opposite Ewan McGregor as a lovestruck medical worker in Darfur. You know, once that whole thing has quieted down and we can enjoy a nice watered down version that won’t force us to actually think about it. Bless you all!

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Screenplay by David Wolstencroft
Story by Richard Alwyn and David Belton

John Hurt as Father Christopher
Hugh Dancy as Joe Connor
Claire-Hope Ashitey as Marie
Dominique Horwitz as Capitaine Charles Delon
Nicola Walker as Rachel
Steve Toussaint as Roland
David Gyasi as François
Victor Power as Julius
Musa Kasonka Jr. as Boniface
Kizito Ssentamu Kayiira as Pierre

Cinematography by Ivan Strasburg
Film Editing by Christian Lonk
Original Music by Dario Marianelli
Costume Design by Dinah Collin
Production Design by Bertram Strauß
Art Direction by Astrid Sieben
Set Decoration by Dagmar Wessel


Friday, March 09, 2007

300 - Movie Review

300 - (2007)

Ye Gods! Where to begin? When we first heard about Zack Snyder adapting Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’sgraphic novel” (COMIC BOOK, JUST SAY IT!) version of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae – we admit we were excited. After all, we were fans of Mr. Snyder’s energetic and witty remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead . . . yes, you read that correctly. It is one of the few remakes of a “classic” flick that while it may not have surpassed the original, certainly didn’t denigrate it. Although, we must pause to ask ourselves if it is possible to denigrate a Zombie movie, moving on.

We were certainly fans of that humpy piece of Scottish ass, Gerard Butler who was hired to portray the brave King Leonidas and once we saw the making of featurettes that began to crop up on the internet, we were sold! Woo-hoo! Large, muscley, sweaty men in leather jockstraps, flowing capes, pummeling the shit out of each other! What’s not to like?

Well, the short answer is everything. Here is a film that plays it so close to the source material, which we must remind you is a comic book, that it is absolutely trapped underneath the static rhythms of that pulpy genre. Now, faithful readers will recognize that we have nothing against a comic book flick, if they are made with a sense of style and vigor. In particular, we enjoyed the last Frank Miller derived piece, the neo-Noir stylings of “Sin City”. But Noir is such a visually expressive film genre that relies on the interplay of light and shadow; it could withstand its reduction to the equivalent of storyboard panels. History is quite another matter entirely.

For those of you under the age of 2,500, the Battle of Thermopylae has captured the minds of history buffs, military strategists, earlier filmmakers and pencil necked geeks since its truly awesome occurrence. As Xerxes innumerable forces descended upon the Grecian peninsula, roughly 300 of Sparta’s best soldiers gathered together with equally sparse neighboring armies to fend off the juggernaut of the Persian armies. They failed. But not before their names would be written on histories pages as some of the bravest and most devoted soldiers to have set foot into sandal. Despite their small numbers, they ravished the Persian armies before being betrayed by a fellow countrymen and ultimately succumbing to their bloody fate. A fate that would inspire their fellow Greeks to take up their mantle and finally drive out the invaders.

All of which should make for a great and grand tale of bravery, fighting the odds and heroism . . . and all of which is washed down the sepia colored drain of this miserably overwrought movie. Zack Snyder has opted to drench the film under the weight of CGI dross that ultimately depletes the movie of any sense of scope or pageantry. We simply never believe this movie is any deeper than a rough sketch. The invading armies appear to be leftover scenes from a handheld video game. While CGI continues to evolve, bringing with it the promise to capture untold “other worlds” scenarios, it will never replace the physically awesome sight of a landscape filled with actual participants. One glance at the thundering hordes streaming across the tundra in Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1968 version of “War and Peace” simply dwarfs the present day competition.

All of which could be forgivable if the film did not dare to venture forth into the heretical. The political arena. Now, to be fair, Mr. Snyder has gone on record as refuting any political overtones. Well, he is either blind to his own directorial vision or a damn fool. To make a film about Persians invading Greece, and to portray the Greeks as white bread muscle boys and the enemies as dark skinned degenerates is tantamount to declaring your membership in a neo-Nazi support group. Throw in needless declarations of “manliness” on the part of the Spartans and taunts and epithets of “boy lovers” and “mystics” to the opposition, and you’d be welcomed with open arms into any fundamentalist right wing church in the country.

300” is the epitome of negligent filmmaking in a time of war that not only manages to insult the current day political atmosphere, but to deny the complexities of the reality of war. This film may go down in history as the most blatantly obtuse piece of war propaganda since John Wayne’s The Green Berets”, made at the height of the Vietnam War.

While the cast may have certainly earned their bravery marks in the unearthly training sessions that produced such heaping mounds of abs, one wishes they had spent some time in acting classes. Gerard Butler may cut a dashing figure as their good King Leonidas, but his posturing and eardrum piercing habit of shouting each of his lines in monosyllabic grunts is off-putting to say the least. His fellow Spartans run the gamut of swarthy to sweaty, without ever breaking out of the phalanx of forgettable. Replace one churlish lout with the next, and the codpieces all blur into one.

Not that the remainder of the cast fares any better. Lena Headey seems to be channeling Lesley-Anne Down syndrome as Queen Gorgo, a woman more interested in the complicated crinkle of her garments than the thought of losing her husband, leader and city. Up until now, we had no idea it was possible to be out-acted by a CGI pillar.

As the duplicitous Theron, the normally attractive Dominic West is buried under makeup meant to project “menacing”, and begins to resemble a garden gnome. His idea of exuding sinister amounts to acting with his rubberized forehead and spitting out his dialogue with all the polish of an amateur porn star.

And speaking of porn, there is absolutely no excuse to what has been done to Rodrigo Santoro in the role of Xerxes. Arriving on a gilded litter meant to evoke Elizabeth Taylor’s entrance into Rome, bejeweled and pierced over every orifice and slathered with more kohl and Light Egyptian than Hedy Lamarr in “White Cargo”, he is instantly a creature to be pitied rather than feared. No wonder the Spartans scoff at this otherworldly ponce. It seems impossible that this would be the man who laid waste to civilizations with his legions.

It seems more likely he is the cinematic offspring of Maria Montez and Persis Khambatta.

300” may pretend to focus on the stylized visuals, and chest thumping testosterone antics of the main storyline but it is undone at each turn by the trivialization of its source material. Surely one of the most famous battles in mankind’s history deserves better than music video graphics slathered over a troop of shaved glistening hardbodies.

This is a history PowerPoint presentation filled with images from an all male strip club. Even gay porn versions of gladiator games have the good sense to include a “Money Shot”.

Has there ever been a “Sword and Sandals” epic ripe with such empty graphics? It was bad enough when the Spartans encounter their slain brethren crucified en masse upon a giant tree, and all we could think of was the poster design for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “A Little Night Music”.

But nothing could prepare us for the mind numbing scene wherein King Leonidas ventures forth to a mysterious Oracle, guarded by a leprosy ridden caste of acolytes. While her contorted gyrations are meant to evince a liquid like state of mysticism, all it achieves is an anthropomorphic lava lamp quality.

Ultimately, that is the grand failure of “300”. For a film that is being lauded for its alleged creativity, it is decidedly bereft of anything original. Its sets and costumes seemed culled from central storage. The acting is wooden at best and laughable at its worst moments – of which there are multitudes. It’s difficult to decide who is worse, Butler as the one note posturing leader, or Headey who is practically asleep throughout her scenes. And why bother with a subplot of betrayal and greed when the masses of pimply geeks all came to see the big boys play with their CGI toys? A mock game of honor that makes us yearn for the days before “The Matrix” popularized the painfully trite slow motion blood spurting that has pitiably dominated every action flick in recent memory. The tale of the Spartans that inspired “300” will thankfully live past this films moment of infamy. Do yourselves a favor and go read Herodotus instead. Bless you all!

Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

Gerard Butler as King Leonidas
Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo
Dominic West as Theron
Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes
David Wenham as Dilios
Vincent Regan as Captain
Michael Fassbender as Stelios
Tom Wisdom as Astinos
Andrew Pleavin as Daxos
Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes
Giovani Antonio Cimmino as Pleistarchos
Kelly Craig as the Oracle
Eli Snyder as Leonidas, age seven
Tyler Max Neitzel as Leonidas, age fifteen

Cinematography by Larry Fong
Film Editing by William Hoy
Original Music by Tyler Bates
Costume Design by Michael Wilkinson
Production Design by James D. Bissell
Art Direction by Isabelle Guay, Nicolas Lepage and Jean-Pierre Paquet
Set Decoration by Paul Hotte