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The Spirit (2008)

This is the last time someone will let Frank Miller direct. Astoundingly bad, The Spirit is borderline camp for every absurd and bizarre second. It careens all over the place, never settling on a tone. So one minute it will be hard-boiled noir and the next it will break down the fourth wall and amp up the goofy slapstick to Looney Tunes levels. The story is threadbare, the characters are half-developed ideas, and each scene almost exists in its own five-minute world before Miller barrels forward. Sure the flick has some appealing visuals, but even those are derivative of the superior Sin City. As a director, Miller doesn’t cut it. He will shoot scenes with nothing but close-ups, giving no point of establishment for the audience, and he’s too prone to random diversions. Miller displays zero ability, or a complete disregard, for directing actors; they are terrible in different ways. Gabriel Macht, as the back-from-the-dead crime fighter The Spirit, sounds like Paul Rudd doing a Harrison Ford impression. Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious criminal/mad scientist/also semi-immortal The Octopus, overacts to a degree not even seen by Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, as an evil assistant, can’t even hide her disdain and boredom. This stuff just becomes unchecked lunacy, but it still manages to be boring through and through. The hero is a stiff, all the women are sex objects, and the conflicts are pointless when the combatants can’t be killed. The only thing worth mentioning is that Eva Mendes is still a gorgeous looking woman. Even Miller couldn’t fumble that one.

Nate?s Grade: D

300 (2007)

The story of the 300 is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, 150 years before Alexander the Great. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santiago) has deemed himself a “God king” and his Persian army has been conquering Asian nations and acquiring the most massive military force of its time. He sets his sights on conquering Greece, and to do so must go through the narrow passage of Thermopylae.

King Leonidis (Gerard Butler) assembles 300 of his finest Spartan warriors to thwart the Persian invasion. The Spartans were the super soldiers of their time, a society that valued brute strength and the honor of combat. Children born with imperfections were cast onto the rocks to perish; the society couldn’t afford a weak link in its protection. One day a Persian emissary rides into Sparta carrying the skulls of other kings and princes and a message from Xerxes: submit or you’re next. Well, after the emissary insults Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), he refutes the message and kicks the emissary down a giant black pit in the middle of town (is this where they dump their garbage?). Thus, as they say, it is on. The Greek city-states have no sense of nationalism, so Leonidis commands little support to thwart the advancing Persian hordes. The Spartans have discipline and superior equipment, and because of these advantages they are able to hold back overwhelming numbers from the Persian army.

Back at the home front, Queen Gorgo is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to state her case to the Spartan assembly. She needs to shore support for more troops to help her husband. Theron (Dominic West) is a member of the priesthood that looks to sexually charged Oracles for guidance. However, he’s willing to drop his pacifist stance if the queen drops her robe and grins and bares it.

Xerxes is not a happy “God king.” He tries appealing to Leonidis, insisting that if he will simply bow down and relent than he will be spared. “Imagine what horrible fate awaits my enemies when I would gladly kill any of my own men for victory,” he threatens. Leonidas replies, “And I would die for any of mine.” The two men (well one man and one God king) go back to their corners ready for another round of this epic slugfest.

The action sequences are intense and director Zack Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead) heightens their realities with surreal touches. He fondly gives life to the bloodshed and exaggerated combat popularized from Frank Miller?s graphic novel. The Sin City author has created another testosterone-soaked hyper-real adventure. The movie doesn’t even flirt with the notion of rigid historical accuracy (I doubt the Spartans fought rhinos, giant mutants, and were done in by a disgruntled hunchback); the film uses Miller’s artwork as a jumping point, which means that the Spartans fight in leather codpieces and red capes and that combat is more one-on-one even after we learn about the important of the phalanx. But quibbling over inaccuracies is a waste of time, because 300 is a pumped-up, super cool action movie that plays out in a vivid dreamscape. The movie was filmed with extensive green screen, much like Sin City was, and it feels like a direct transition of Miller’s pulpy comic book. Even the farewell sex between the King and Queen is stylized and seems to be snippets or panels from a comic book.

Let’s all be honest, there’s something undeniably homoerotic about 300. The movie worships the male form, with rippling abs and bulging biceps lovingly showcased in glowing, sweaty, fawning detail. The movie also focuses on manly men primarily spearing one another with phallic weaponry while the spurting blood dances across the camera in balletic CGI spasms. There?s a definite gay appeal to this film, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, 300 also manages to curiously be homophobic at the same time (I swear this came to me independently, Phil). Xerxes is designed very as being very fey even at a massive height of eight feet. He lays his hands against Leonidis’ shoulders and asks for him to submit, and you can’t help but wonder what the teen boys in the audience are thinking. Xerxes also has a party tent filled with whores, the disfigured, transvestites, and the overall effeminate opposite of all those Greek macho muscle men the film postures as elite specimens.

The acting is set to one tempo and that’s a mesmerizing use of yell-speak; it’s part guttural and part long-standing bellow that makes any piece of dialogue sound macho. King Leonidis growls, “SPAAAAAAAARTANS! TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELLLLLLLL!” After two hours of this primal style of speech, it becomes somewhat infectious and you want to try it in everyday situations in your life. Next time you’re out with friends at a fine dining establishment, I suggest asking for the salt thusly: “DINING PAAAARTNAAAAAH, COULD. YOOOOOOOOOU. PAAAAAAAAASS. THE SAAAAAAAAAAAALT?!” You’ll be guaranteed to get a reaction. It strains my throat even writing about the 300 yell-speak.

300 is a rousing movie going experience that plays out in a beautiful, pristine dreamscape that closely resembles our planet. The action is highly stylized and frenetic. It’s just that when the film stops to take a breath you start to look elsewhere, and when you do you realize there isn’t much below the blood-caked eye candy shell. 300 is grand spectacle that elicits thrills and chills, but the movie fails to touch on emotions beyond loyalty and courage. Both are essential for a soldier, and one as dedicated as a Spartan warrior, but the lack of substance keeps 300 from being anything other than a visually arresting, if ultimately disposable, two hours at the movies. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose sole purpose is to quicken the pulse for a short supply of time, and 300 succeeds smashingly with this singular ambition. It is an ass-kicking history lesson that makes me wish I could learn more about Persian executioners with blades for hands at my local library.

Every culture has their own account of a last stand, a small group that heroically held off seemingly superior forces (remember the Alamo?). Snyder and Miller present an entertaining hack-and-slash primer through history that’s rarely dull and often enchanting to the senses. Deep down, there may not be much more to 300 than a lot of pretty pictures and a bunch of chiseled hunks, but that?s enough for most carnage fans with a free afternoon.

Nate?s Grade: B

Sin City (2005)

Like film noir on steroids. Director Robert Rodriguez has made the most faithful comics adaptation ever; giving life to Frank Miller’s striking black and white art. The visuals are sumptuous but the storytelling is just as involving, a perfect mix of noir/detective elements and subversive, highly memorable characters. Sin City may be the most violent studio film … ever, but the over-the-top tone keeps the proceedings from becoming too nauseating, even after limbs are lost, heads roll (and talk), and dogs pick away at living bodies. This is a very ball-unfriendly movie; lots of castrations. The blood even looks like fluorescent bird crap. The stories become somewhat repetitious (anti-hero saves distressed woman), but Miller and Rodriguez keep their tales tight, pulpy, comic, and unpredictable. My girlfriend turned to me after it was done and said, “That was a great movie.” I could not argue.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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