Friday, March 30, 2007


"This won't be quick. You won't enjoy it."

The Spartans, according to the film 300, were a bunch of Manly Men. Really Manly. And their women are really Womanly, which doesn't mean much except that when they aren't standing by their own Manly Men they are giving birth to more of them, who can be trained to be WARRIORS. Unworthy babies (evidently those who are not perfect physical specimens or who seem to demonstrate any interest in interior decoration) are exposed to the elements, meaning that these brave Manly Spartans don't have the decency or the nerve to kill off their own inadequate offspring.

And these are the people we're supposed to be rooting for: a race of people who pride themselves on being ruthless in battle but who leave their own unmilitary-worthy babies to the tender mercies of wild animals. Am I alone in thinking the Spartans were a bunch of scumbags that the world is better off without?

300, based apparently on a well-known "graphic novel," tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, during which a small band of 300 Spartans held off a whole bunch of invaders. King Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans, learns of the impending invasion of his lands by the dread Xerxes and his Persian hordes. Leonidas decides to take 300 of his Manliest Men to stop the invasion, knowing that he and his 300 are wildly outnumbered.

The rest of the movie is just one long battle scene with the occasional interruption for largely unnecessary plot complications, including a really gratuitous one involving Leonidas' wife who is holding down the fort at home while Leonidas is off hacking limbs. There's not a lot of surprise to be had in this story, but there is a lot to be offended at.

Make no mistake: 300 worships the White Male Military Man in a way that makes BIRTH OF A NATION look like an episode of DIFF'RENT STROKES. The Pure White Manly Bulging Spartans (always ensuring their abs are shown to best advantage) do battle against an invading horde that is:

1. Racially mixed. They're identified as Persians even though a certain sub-horde incorrectly known as the Immortals are dressed like ninjas carrying what look like samurai swords.

2. Largely anonymous. Faces are very seldom visible, as the enemy is usually shown wearing concealing costumes and masks, unlike the nearly nude and exceedingly toned Spartans.

3. Sexually Ambiguous. The God-king of the Persians, Xerxes, is like a gay-panicked director's feverdream. Covered from head to toe in jewelry and piercings, he's a RuPaul of the Ancient World. He actually flounces and wears eye makeup (think late '60s Barbra).

4. Physically Repulsive. The Persians seem to have a cottage industry in surgical experimentation. There's what looks like a mutated giant turned loose on the Spartans, and a horrifying sequence showing what seems to be a man whose arms have been replaced with axe blades to speed up the execution process. Further, the Spartans' ultimate defeat hinges upon their betrayal by a hideously deformed Greek character who had the bad luck to survive the Spartans' infant screening process, and who holds something of a grudge when Leonidas spurns his offer of service. Ultimately, physical perfection is the barometer to character for this film: virtue = tight abs and big pecs.

As far as the acting goes, more time seems to have been spent at the gym or in the makeup chair touching up abs than in rehearsal. Gerard Butler fulfills the promise he displayed in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. He sounds like he learned his lines phonetically, or is trying to overcome a very thick Scots accent or a serious speech impediment, or maybe even all three. The script doesn't help much, but altogether too many of his lines are simply shouted out word by word, as in "THIS! IS! SPARTA!!" And the time at the gym has paid off. No non-pornographic film in my experience pays so much attention to the male torso: big pecs, abs that do nothing but ripple. The cast is expected to do a lot of physical action, the battle scenes are really very choreographed, you can see the actors counting off in their heads "turn and flex and hack and flex and sever and flex and slash and pose and walk walk walk and pose."

All in all, an unbelievable movie. Scary and dangerous on so many levels. Unworthy of your time, except to scare the living daylights out of you at the state of a country populated with people who don't see this garbage for what it is.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Is a new musical from the creators of LES MISERABLES based apparently on real historical events involving an Irish woman who manages to overcome gender prejudice, gain the respect of the men in her clan, and become a pirate/freedom fighter. There’s a BIG SET, and there are BIG SONGS. There’s a lot of that Irish clomp-dancing that people just go crazy for, and that damned Irish-sounding flute/pipe thing that we’ve been hearing since “My Heart will Go On.” There’s about 45 minutes of plot blown up to fill 2 and a half hours, and enough simplistic nattering about female empowerment to fill a lifetime’s worth of Lifetime movies of the week. All this, and Queen Elizabeth I too.

The score is memorable, in the sense that it keeps triggering your memories of other songs. Echoes of LES MIS are all over the place, big power sung chorus numbers meant to inspire Big Feelings, and tender little power ballads that keep threatening to turn into “My Heart Will Go On.” One extended wedding celebration number sounds like a remix of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Bits and pieces of EVITA and WICKED, and most bizarrely PACIFIC OVERTURES can be heard, and it doesn’t help the evening at all. I just kept wishing that I was actually watching EVITA and WICKED and PACIFIC OVERTURES and SOUTH PARK: BIGGER LONGER AN D UNCUT and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and even LES MIS instead of THE PIRATE QUEEN.

The similarities to WICKED get to be rather pronounced, especially in the second act, as the focus shifts to the relationship between Queen Glinda/Elizabeth and Pirate Queen Elphaba/Grace. Bits of staging and certain lighting effects feel plagiarized from WICKED, as well as from LES MISERABLES (a scene of pathetic beggarly types swarming out of a trap door led the man sitting next to me to laugh out loud and say “Oh, no, this isn’t ripped off from LES MIS at all!”).

And what isn’t ripped off is often downright hilarious. A song entitled “Boys Will Be Boys” sung by the Pirate Queen’s brutish and arranged fiancĂ© includes the deathless lyric “She’s confused about gender!” A later sequence involving the Big Bad British soldiers attacking a church during the christening of the Pirate Queen’s dear little newborn laddie is staged for Maximum Theatricality (Red Lights! Smoke! Chorus Boys With Spears! Choreographed Slow Motion Fighting!) and winds up inspiring Maximum Hilarity. And think about this. A “serious” theatrical production in the 21st Century actually contains the following lines of dialogue:

Impetuous Youth: I’ll make a woman of her!
Imperious Father: I hope she’ll make a man of you!

Simple fairness compels me to admit that there are some good things about the show. The sets are interesting, the lighting is interesting, the costumes are more than serviceable, if a bit too specifically intended to grab a tony for Costume Design. The cast does the very best they can with what they’ve been given, but you kind of wonder if they know how bad what they’ve been given really is. There’s a lot of head-tossing and noble posturing and grimacing to indicate suffering, and the British bad guys flick their capes a lot.

I could go on all day. In a nutshell, this is the kind of show your best friend’s mother will just love, never quite understanding why you’re laughing so hard at it.

Friday, March 09, 2007


"Here comes the Hurdy Gurdy Man, he's singing songs of love..."

Imagine a film that combines ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Now imagine a good version of that movie. Try. Okay. Now. That movie in your head is not just in your head. It is David Fincher's ZODIAC, and it is very much worth seeing. Much to my surprise.

You probably know by now what the film is about: the search for a serial killer, and all that. ZODIAC is not what usually passes for a detective thriller: that cliched parade of ugly murder scenes with occasional police interruptions culminating in a Big Finish with the killer vanquished until the almost-inevitable sequel. ZODIAC reverses this formula, giving us a parade of investigation scenes punctuated with occasional ugly murders. The investigation really is the thing in this film, and there are scenes of cops and reporters talking and going round and round what sometimes feels like the same material over and over. This is at least partly the point, as the main thrust of the film is the hold that the Zodiac begins to have on the people involved in the investigation, eventually turning into an obsession on the part of Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

That this never gets dull is due in no small measure to Fincher's admirable cast. Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., to say nothing of a host of other fine actors like Dermot Mulroney and Elias Koteas in smaller roles. I liked watching Downey and Gyllenhall together; their comedy-tinged scenes are the perfect foil to Edwards and Ruffalo's no-nonsense work.

I'd not been a fan of Fincher's earlier films, like SEVEN or FIGHT CLUB or THE GAME. They all just seem to suffer from serious Style-itis. Fancy editing and special effects and mood all over the place (the police in SEVEN seem to have no idea how to switch on a light), rather surprisingly predictable plots (anyone who thinks for a moment about which Deadly Sins have not yet been enacted will be two steps ahead of the cops in SEVEN) all combined with a feeling that some kind of never-clearly-articulated Big Message is intended (what the hell was FIGHT CLUB really about, anyway?). ZODIAC has what none of Fincher's other films have had: people I give a damn about, in a story I found interesting. The visual flourishes made sense (the Transamerica Tower assembles itself onscreen to show the passage of an extended chunk of time) and the mood-inducing touches actually worked. I found myself getting terribly upset at the approach of a car playing Hurdy Gurdy Man on its radio.

And I stayed terribly upset, even after the final credits rolled. I got a paranoid contact high from ZODIAC, one that had me jumpy and nervous and just generally creeped out all the way home. ZODIAC stayed with me in a way that few movies I've seen recently have.