to kill more Persians? Spartan warriors in 300.
By Ann Morrow
by Zack Snyder
Is. Sparta.” That’s the rallying cry of King Leonidas (Gerard
Butler) of the Greek city-state, and it’s the manifesto of
300, the pop-art movie. Sparta, as created by Frank Miller
in his graphic novel, is a state of mind. So is Sin City,
also from a Miller graphic novel, and though Sin City
was inspired by pulp-noir detective novels, and 300 by
the mythologizing histories of Homer, the two films are almost
twins in their CGI style. Directed by Zack Snyder in a continuation
of Robert Rodriguez’s hallucinatory hyperrealism for Sin
City, 300 tells a tale of opposing forces and does
so with comic-book brio and cheekiness.
Based on the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 elite Spartan
warriors held their own against 20,000 Persians (give or take
an archer or two), 300 opens with Leonidas’ upbringing
as a warrior-in-training. Sparta, circa 500 BC, has been distilled
into a military garrison in which boys are drafted into boot
camp (make that swords-and-sandals camp) at age 7 and drilled
with relentless brutality and deprivation. While still a youth,
the future king is sent into the wilderness, where he experiences
a spiritual contact high while spearing a wolf. And if it’s
murky just what the wolf is supposed to symbolize, the exaggeratedly
lurid visuals are can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen potent.
The narration is spoken by an unseen bard (but look, there’s
David Wenham from The Lord of the Rings in the left
phalanx!)—with a dulcet seriousness that keeps tongue
in cheek even during the most deliberately cheesy of exchanges
(“My arm,” wails a Persian after his appendage is sliced clean
off. “It’s not your arm anymore” replies the slicing Spartan
as the arm soars toward him). The storyboarding produces as
many sniggers as wows, yet the spoken-word dialogue is bizarrely
affecting, and increases in resonance as the plot progresses.
And yes, there’s a method to the madly repetitive and pompous
narration and action.
Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Persia’s androgynous “king of kings,”
tries to seduce Sparta into submission; failing that, he threatens
war. Defying the religious tradition of obedience to Greece’s
lecherously decrepit oracles, Leonidas meets the Persians
head-on at a mountain pass. Meanwhile, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey)
has her own nest of vipers to contend with, namely sexy-slimy
Theron (Dominic West) as she tries to rally the Senate to
send more troops to her beleaguered husband. While hewing
away at a massively larger army, the Spartan elites have to
contend with Xerxes’ cavalry of rhinos-on-steroids, mutated
special forces who apparently escaped from The Road Warrior,
and an advance guard of ghostly viziers called Immortals.
In short, Leonidas fights for free will, while Xerxes seeks
to increase his vast realm of enslaved devotees in an empire
that is as decadent and in dulgent as Sparta is harsh and
disciplined. Amid all the javelin throwing, sword thrusting,
arrow slinging, and pike jabbing, Snyder manages to slide
in enough clever maneuvers and emotional fillips to keep the
carnage interesting right until the final eye gouge and narrative
twist. This Crayola-edition epic beats with a heart that is
Lady of the Bunnies
by Chris Noonan
This biopic of author-illustrator Beatrix Potter is maddening
because it gets just enough right to be sort-of charming.
The problem is the script, which turns a fascinating life
into a by-the-Hollywood-book romance.
Set at the turn of the previous century, the film starts with
the 30-something, unmarried Potter (Renée Zellweger) trying
to sell her children’s books to skeptical publishers. The
standard Victorian constraints on women are duly noted; the
elements of the would-be independent woman’s struggle are
offered, including a loving-but-patronizing father (Bill Patterson,
with impressive whiskers) and a monstrously dismissive mother
(Barbara Flynn). Right on cue, the awkward admirer (Ewan McGregor
as Norman Warne) enters the story. There are effective flashbacks
to Potter’s childhood summers in Great Britain’s Lake District,
where she spent happy hours drawing.
Potter, as we all know, sells her books about Peter Rabbit
and Jemima Puddleduck, and makes a lot of money. This reality
lifts her from gloomy plot arc that usually fits the independent-woman
It’s Zellweger’s vehicle, and she does pretty well.
Zellweger “pulls faces” like nobody else. In Miss Potter,
whenever Beatrix is confronted with an obstacle, she scrunches
her face up with frightening zeal. Sometimes this is an asset;
it can also get in the way of actual acting. This happens
a few times at the beginning of Miss Potter, until
McGregor shows up as her publisher and suitor.
McGregor and Zellweger have terrific screen chemistry. As
in the underrated Down With Love, whenever they’re
together she stops mugging and becomes engaged in the scene.
For his part, McGregor is very good: He wears the period clothes
and an absurdly oversized mustache as if he’s not worthy of
them, which is both funny and fitting for a character who’s
treated by his own wealthy family as a kind of pet.
Zellweger also reacts well whenever the critters she draws
come to (animated) life. Yes, the bunnies wiggle and twitch
at Miss Potter; she talks back to them. The filmmakers seem
worried about doing too much of this however; maybe they don’t
want us to think she was a nut. This is a pity. Director Chris
Noonan (Babe) has the right light touch for this sort
of whimsy. A few singing rabbits as Greek chorus, a friend
suggested, wouldn’t have been out of order.
Another gripe: The presentation of London is misleading. The
city is scrubbed and clean. The real London of 1902, powered
and heated by soot-spewing coal burners, was a horror that
would, in contrast, make Potter’s attachment to her beloved
countryside powerfully direct.
This would also have tied in with the fact, dramatized in
the film, that Potter was an early land preservationist. (The
film gets that right about her life, while her distinguished
career as a botanical artist is omitted.) With the books bringing
in a hefty revenue stream, Potter was able to buy and preserve
thousands of acres in the Lake District. Which, along with
those weirdly charming illustrations and fantastic anthropomorphized
critters, is quite a legacy.
Unlike this greeting-card version of her life, which is a
pleasant enough failure.