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Ready to kill more Persians? Spartan warriors in 300.

Killing for Glory

By Ann Morrow

300

Directed by Zack Snyder

‘This. 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 all Homer.

Our Lady of the Bunnies

Miss Potter

Directed 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 trope.

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.

—Shawn Stone


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