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by Bill Gibron

18 Jul 2009

How do you celebrate a seminal moment in cinema? How to do you mark the instant when the medium changed irrevocably, introducing new artistic rudiments into a mix that seemed mired in a morass of aesthetic sameness for decades? If you are Warner Brothers, you dig deep into your vault of available bonus material, contact director Zack Snyder, and give the boys in blu-ray a call. Like it or not (and there are many who will be displeased with this next statement), 300 stands as such a revelatory event in the motion picture artform. Outside of the parodies and rip-offs, this particularly powerful bottled lightning won’t be recaptured any time soon - isn’t that right, The Spirit? So the studio has decided to give the title an ultimate format refresher - and it is indeed as “complete” as one could wish for.

For those who’ve forgotten 300 centers around the Spartan King Leonidas. When Persian conquerors led by the self-proclaimed “man-god” Xerxes threaten to destroy all of Greece, the concerned royal seeks the sage advice of his Ephors - mystics who rely on the Oracle Pythia to predict the future. When they state unequivocally that Sparta must not go to war, Leonidas defies their legally binding mandate. Gathering 300 of his finest soldiers, he travels to the Hot Gates near the Persian encampment and prepares for battle. Meanwhile his Queen Gorgo pleads for the Council to reconsider and send more help for their leader. As a woman, she holds little sway, so she seeks the aid of influential advisor Theron. While he is plotting his own treachery, a hunchback named Ephialtes is desperate to join the armed uprising. When he is rejected, he finds comfort - and conspiracy - in the Persian camp.

While it easy to ridicule and dismiss 300 as some manner of homoerotic adolescent fantasy, just think of what it could have been. For those of us who are old enough to remember, your typical sword and sandal epic was nothing more than a lame excuse to get a recently dethroned Mr. Universe (or if unavailable, Mr. Olympia) to strut around shirtless while foreign speaking extras offered their poorly dubbed sentiments. The storyline, usually stolen from mythology, added to the air of phony flexed authenticity. Toss in a buxom beauty or two, a set left over from some other historical title, and bathe their entire thing in a cloud of musk machismo so overpowering it would make professional wrestling look like figure skating and you’ve got Peplum 101. In light of the source material, no matter Miller’s pedigree, 300 could have been one of these museum piece mockeries.

Instead, Zack Snyder’s meticulous recreation becomes a kind of entertainment and creative litmus test, a way of measuring why you go to the movies and how fascinating you find the process behind the lens. If you just want your action epic to move along at a quick ADD-like pace, pour on the sensational stuntwork, and accent with bloodshed and bountiful F/X, then 300 should satisfy. It’s ‘all that’ and a bag of delicious decadent CG chips. Yet for some reason, audiences initially rejected director Snyder’s visual overload. They’ll take it from a bunch of second-rate transforming robots, but when it’s offered up in oversized sugary vats of sensational cinematic eye candy, they apparently fall into a commercial coma. While it was a surprise hit in 2006, there are still those who argue over this film’s sense of indulgence. Among the many complaints leveled against the film, the dismissal of “more” seems particularly perturbing, given the brilliant outcome.

The other specious argument centers around the story. Granted, no one is claiming that 300 is a documentary and some poetic license has to be taken with events this far lost in the past. But what, exactly, is wrong with the way Miller and Snyder tell this tale? We get a wonderful flashback foundation, Leonidas’ early lessons by the fist and the lash provided in effective, emphatic displays. We have an emotional core, given the King’s love for his Queen, and there’s even some political intrigue. The battle lines and strategies are easy to follow and the motives of both sides are simple and self-evident. So what exactly is the problem here? Is it too upfront? Do post-modern audiences really want more from their pumped-out power statements than easy exposition and the occasional muscled torso?

Certainly the acting can’t be questioned - even if most of it is done from the neck down. Gerard Butler is almost unrecognizable as Leonidas and he is 300‘s heart and soul. His line readings remind the viewer of just what’s at stake and they give the occasionally outlandish situations a real sense of authority and seriousness. Similarly, Dominic West makes a terrific sleaze ball. His wormy personality, polished with a suave speaking style, makes it easy to understand Theron’s deception. With the added excellence of David Wenham (as narrator and battle participant Dilios) and Lena Headey as Gorgo, this movie has an amazing cast - and that’s not even discussing Rodrigo Santoro’s chilling turn as Xerxes, or the various well-chiseled members of the Spartan contingent. To its benefit, there is never a moment here when we feel that Gold’s Gym was raided for some random beefcake. These are Spartan’s, not centerfolds.

Of course, what 300 really boils down to is the overall effectiveness of the state of the art craftsmanship involved. Unlike Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, Snyder tries to keep things tied to truth, not tech spec computing power - and Warners responds with an amazing Blu-ray package. The 1080p image is outstanding, as good (or better) than its theatrical twin. Similarly, the sound design really shines on the new format, the speakers experiencing the same ambient atmosphere that audiences received the first time around. Some will question whether this digital double dip is worth it. From the audio and video department, the answer is a solid “yes”. But there is another facet to this release that really illustrates how the blu-ray format can be utilized to truly ‘enhance’ your viewing pleasure. It’s also the main reason to pick up this latest version. 

Thanks to the new “complete” dynamic, there are three equally intriguing ways to experience 300 all over again. The first finds Frank Miller and the art department discussing the various ways the story’s sequences were envisioned. Always a wealth of insight, the comic’s creator really enjoys sharing his stories of inspiration. Snyder then turns up for version number two, this time explaining the whole “greenscreen” approach to the production and the various tricks used to realize his take on Miller’s vision. Finally, a few scholars settle in to explain the historical accuracy (or in many cases, the lack thereof) of this particular version of the famed battle. As with most movies, there is some obvious fabrication going on. But for the most part, Miller and Snyder stay true to the Spartans’ stand-off against the invading hordes.

As a technical achievement both in theaters and on the new digital domain, 300 is a true artistic triumph. It stands alone among its many motion picture peers, offering an experience as close to ancient canvases come to life as you are likely to see in the cinema - at least, for the next few years. As directors like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller himself attempt to push the boundaries of such ‘sketch and illustrate’ epics, there will always be this groundbreaking trendsetter to remind everyone of how to do it right. While one can debate the merits of his movie all they want, no one can question the artistry required to bring it to life. Thankfully, this new “Complete Experience” will highlight how hard - and rewarding - such incessantly hard work really is.

by Teresa Jusino

17 Jul 2009

It’s been a month since Wizard World Philly 2009, but I have to write about it.  Someone has to mark its death knell.

I started going to conventions in 2006, when I was lucky enough to be hired as a volunteer at the Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.  I’ve been to New York Comic Con twice, and plan on going yearly, because it’s a great con, and I live in NYC, so it doesn’t require airfare or hotel expenses.  Over the years, as I’ve listened to fellow geeks make me jealous with tales of all the conventions they somehow find the time and money to go to, Wizard World Philly was always mentioned as a natural, desired stop in their convention circuit.  So I was excited when I saw a chance to go to WWP as a volunteer.  Finally, I’d get to see what all the fuss was about!

Turns out it’s not about very much, not anymore, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Being a volunteer, one hears the gossip amongst the vendors.  This is the worst Wizard World Philly in years they said.  No one is here! they panicked.  The “exhibition floor” looked more like a PTA swap meet in a school gym.  Nothing caught the eye, and the floor was only about half full.  The cast of Battlestar Galactica was signing autographs, which was amazing…but Lou Ferrigno and Peter Mayhew?  Really?  No disrespect intended, but are they the best that WWP has to offer?  The programming schedule also left a lot to be desired.  There were one or two interesting panels, which I’ll write about another time, but for the most part…well, they’ll have to invent a new word for boring to capture how boring this convention was.  I mean, I didn’t even take any pictures, it was so boring.

Wizard World seems to have been the victim of convention over-saturation.  HeroesCon was going on the same weekend, and lots of people chose that instead.  I would have, too, if I could have afforded to fly to Charlotte!  Brian Michael Bendis was there!  As was Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Tony Harris, and other powerhouses in the comics industry from both mainstream comics as well as indie comics.  It’s only natural that with the increase in conventions some will fall by the wayside.  Sadly, though Wizard World Philly is happening in 2010, it seems to be on the way out.  Which is a shame for East Coasters like me who can’t afford to fly across the country to get our geek on.  Ah, well.  There’s always New York Comic Con!

by Chadwick Jenkins

17 Jul 2009

The History Channel is about to launch a new series focusing on the somewhat unpromising subject of a pawnshop. The series goes by the rather prurient but, I suppose, amusing moniker of Pawn Stars and features three generations working together in the pawn business, a business that served as the main form of credit in the United States until about 1950 and remains one of the oldest forms of banking.  This particular business is apparently the only family-run pawnshop in Los Angeles and indeed the family tensions and camaraderie make up a large part of the premiere episode. Thus the History Channel enters the world of (quasi-) reality TV in a manner in which only The History Channel could—mixing family and business dynamics with a genuine interest in historical artifacts.

Richard Harrison (often simply called “the Old Man”) started his “Gold & Silver Pawn Shop” in 1988 after losing millions in real estate. He dresses, at least for the credits, as an underachieving mob boss and because of his poor eyesight (presumably) he squints no end. Supposedly, he assesses the value of any piece of merchandise with remarkable exactitude (at least according to the press material) but in this episode he is exposed as having made a rather serious gaffe—he priced a Carson City coin worth roughly $500 at a mere $50 because he could not accurately read the back of the coin. His son and grandson finally convince him to visit the eye doctor but he insists on driving to the appointment!

by Bill Gibron

17 Jul 2009

Sometimes, a horror film is its own worst enemy. While that may sound cliché, no other cinematic genre shoots itself in the foot as readily and as consistently as the so called scary movie. From a lack of atmosphere to a horribly lame monster, movie macabre just can’t keep from ruining its own reputation. While it could be the prevalence of paranormal narratives, or the lack of skill behind the lens, fans of fright have to take the abundant bad with the infrequent good just to get their gore/ghost groove on. A perfect example of this ideal is The Uninvited. While it tries to address terrors both psychological and real, it ends up doing nothing except confusing the bejesus out of everyone involved - audience and actors alike.

Lee suffers from a strange psychological malady. She’s afraid of space. No, not outer space, or the outdoors, like agoraphobics. Her issue is much different. She can’t tolerate the distant between herself and other objects. Afflicted since she was a child, she is seeking medical help for the condition. She’s also become the subject of a documentary by famed filmmaker Nick. A year passes, and the two marry. Lee is much better, living with few side effects from her previous problem. Then things start to slowly unravel.

A strange young woman arrives at their door one day. A shaken Nick brushes off any oddness. It’s just an old assistant, he argues, looking for her final paycheck. But when she’s left alone in the house one night, Lee starts to hear strange noises. It’s not long before her condition returns, as does the mystery girl. Gun in hand, she starts screaming for her baby. Lee has no idea what she’s talking about. Turns out, there is something sinister going on under our heroine’s nose - and she’s about to meet its horrific realities face-to-undead face.

There is nothing more frustrating than a horror film that cheats - and Bob Badway’s The Uninvited (not to be confused with the equally awful remake of A Tale of Two Sisters from January) is the cinematic version of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Rafael Palmiero all rolled into one. To call it illogical would be an insult to teenage girls everywhere. Socrates himself couldn’t rationalize this ridiculous, overly complicated mess. Clearly hoping to mine the same demonic territory that made Rosemary’s Baby a success, this failed first film instead ends up looking like a dumber Devil’s Rain. While the premise of “spatial phobia” has promise, and our actress Marguerite Moreau gives it a damn good try, specious storytelling destroys what little dread there is.

Part of the problem is the underlying conspiracy. Spoiler warning in place, we are supposed to believe that Lee’s loony husband Nick has decided to sell a baby to Satanists in order to become financially prosperous. He gets extra if the surrogate’s blood is also included in the deal. Now, we are never really told this out loud. Former Man at Work, Colin Hay, hints around via dialogue that seems lifted out of a misprinted copy of the script, with the audience required to fill in the blanks through inferences made several scenes earlier. Even worse, we never really know why Lee is singled out. Sure, her malady makes her an easy patsy, but there appears to be a no real method to all this human sacrifice and baby eating (you heard right - baby EATING). Badway would probably argue that vague adds to the tension. All it does is extend the already present tedium.

Because of its scattershot approach and lack of linear connections, The Uninvited can build up a decent head of suspense. Darkened rooms pass for atmosphere and random ambient cues (infant crying, guttural growls) try to tweak the angst. But since we don’t know what’s going on, who to care about, why we should empathize, and the final fatal endgame should hubby get his way, our interest wanes. Then Badway goes a step further and finds the single most annoying supporting character is any scary movie - a suicidal wench who’s hard up for cash and quite happy to pawn her infant to a group of Demonic cannibals. As she sweats and stammers, arguing with someone who clearly has no idea what she’s talking about, The Uninvited grows increasingly irritating. At some point, we keep rooting for the man-goat himself to show up and kick this child merchant in the manifolds.

There is however one thing that does work here, a visual symbol that suggests Badway could actually make a competent fright flick. Lee’s phobia began during a horrific run-in with a spectral image in her youth. In flashback and hallucination, we revisit this terrifying event. As the shot of a neighbor’s opening window exposes a darkened room, our heroine remembers the time when she saw an eerie old woman standing in the frame. Transfixed by the visage, the ghost’s gangrenous smile sends her over the edge. Every time Badway pulls this phantom out, it’s effective. Even when she becomes part of the gobbledygook action elements, our sinister spirit brings on the chills. Too bad the rest of the film is so lame. Another run through the word processor and this could have been a decent Satanic stomp.

As it stands, however, The Uninvited (sorry about that name Badway - you will be forever tied to and/or trumped by that Elizabeth Banks stinker as a result) is too messy to recommend, too tethered to a bunch of incongruous fear factors to do much except aggravate. For all his narrative incompetence, Badway certainly has a cinematic eye. The movie looks good, the frequent fantasy sequences showing a wonderful use of exteriors and color. And Ms. Moreau is not just phoning it in. She gives a fully realized, if factually confusing performance. As with many attempts at terror, we fright fans have to put up with a lot to get a little. In the case of The Uninvited, one’s tolerances are tested - and the results just don’t add up.

by Matt Mazur

17 Jul 2009

Carey Mulligan is getting buzz already as a favorite for Best Actress for her work in this Brit coming of age tale. And Peter Sarsgaard’s dodgy English accent aside, the supporting cast looks killer: Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosemund Pike, Sally Hawkins, the dynamic Emma Thompson and the always-underrated Alfred Molina (what does this man need to do to get an Oscar nom?). This is a real no-brainer: essential fall cinema.

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