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by Bill Gibron

26 Jul 2009

In Hollywood, career desperation can take on many forms. There’s the comedian who tries for drama, the failed thesp who hopes to find solace in a shift behind the lens. There’s the aging star who tries to go younger (or older), as well as the former frontliner who delves into the realm of solid supporting “character” work. Perhaps the most notorious example of fading celebrity anxiety, however, is the return to franchise form. Just ask Harrison Ford. While a mainstay of ‘80s/‘90s blockbusters, his draining fame and fortune saw him reprise his most iconic role - Indiana Jones - for a less than successful fourth installment. Oddly enough, the same thing has happened to La-La land novices Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. 

Remember when this duo was supposed to set the Tinseltown action empire on fire? How Diesel was pitched as the thinking man’s Neanderthal and when Walker embodied leading man qualities in a stuntman’s form? Amazing what a series of less than successful starring roles will garner. Eight years after the first Fast and Furious film made both men car geek gods, the duo have returned - along with most of the original cast - to flesh out their failing finances. Avoiding the auto erotica tenets of the previous titles, part three participants Justin Lin (director) and Chris Morgan (screenplay) have decided to forgo all vehicular fetish to go moody and revenge-oriented - and it almost works. Almost.

When the heat gets too hot on his highway bandit enterprise, Dom Toretto breaks up his gang and heads undercover. Tragedy brings him back to LA. There, he learns that a drug dealer named Braga is responsible for his current pain. Without provocation, he decides to join the criminal’s gang of drivers and get some payback. Standing in his way, however, is old pal/nemesis Brian O’Connor. Now working for the FBI, he wants Braga as well. Reluctantly, they form a partnership which one again takes them into the street racing scene. As Dom’s sister Mia frets over the fate of both men, the bureau wants answers and they want them fast. Discovering who Braga really is, however, may be more difficult than maneuvering the back roads between the US and Mexico.

As long as you know what you’re getting into, Fast & Furious will end up fun and effective. This isn’t Shakespeare. No one will be looking at the expanded Oscar list come awards season for this film’s name to turn up. But when all you really want is a few high-powered action sequences, a simplified narrative that doesn’t play too dumb, and some solid work from an already comfortable cast, this most recent deposit in the fuel-injected franchise’s bank does deliver. Sure, Lin and Morgan want to make this all seem like the greatest tragedy known to man, to show Dom and Brian mulling over their fate in slo-mo statements of import. But this is one movie that doesn’t forget the flash - or put another way, the CGI aided automotive mayhem. Indeed, those looking for old school chrome on concrete chaos may come away disappointed.

This is nu-era F/X, green-screened heroics where our well-washed cast can sit idly back in the safety of the soundstage’s driver seat and look like they are facing almost certain death. An opening bit of mountain road piracy has a wonderful sense of authenticity - that is, until the computer-enhanced cliffs indicate a set of logistical impossibilities. In Los Angeles, Dom and Brian race two others through real traffic strewn streets. Yet every near miss or eventual collision comes straight out of a video game version of life. Nowhere is this more true, however, than in the two main “trips” across the border. Using a tunnel forged under a mountain, our highly modified cars careen back and forth between precarious rock walls. While it strives to be breathtaking, however, we suddenly start flashing back to the “realism” of the mining cart chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Granted, there is nothing wrong with these motherboard managed sequences. Modern audiences need much more bang for their buck less their already addled attention spans sputter and spin out. And the new DVD from Universal offers an entire second disc loaded with Behind the Scenes how-to. But when Quentin Tarantino put Zoe Bell on the top of a car and ran her around the California countryside in Death Proof, we could sense inherently how scary the cinematic stakes really were. Indeed, Fast & Furious could be called Grand Theft Autopilot. Lin knows that his demographic doesn’t care about truth. They want to see stuff smash up - and in as outlandish and outrageous a way possible.

And as for those actors returning to pick up a much needed bit of commercial clout? Fast & Furious proves why they were so highly touted in the first place - sort of. Walker gets the less flamboyant of the two roles. He gets to play rebel cop badass without having to damage either side of the badge. He also knows that co-star Diesel has more to lose than he, and skillfully lets most of their moments fall on those Riddick-riddled shoulders. As for the former bald beefcake, Dom remains a defining role. It allows Diesel to seem substantial without doing much more than holding a steering wheel and the sequences where he sits and broods bring a small amount of gravitas to the otherwise superficial proceedings. With Jordana Brewster back as Mia, and a few more familiar faces thrown in for continuity, this is a literal crowd pleaser - it knows who it’s playing to and exactly how to entertain them.

You too might find some minor amusement buried in all the gearhead rhetoric and mechanized machismo. The film looks good, offering a broader scope than most post-post modern action films, and Lin’s love of all things hip-hop transforms more than one scene into the latest “hos and bros” rap video. But it’s impossible to shake the air of business model dread here. Had Fast & Furious failed at the box office, it would have meant the end for Walker and Diesel. The former would have to find work in the background of otherwise high profile showcases, while the latter would be forced back to flesh out the possibilities within the Pacifier series. Thanks to some impressive ticket returns and a fanbase that clearly wants more of these motor sports, however, Dom and Brian will be back. So you see, sometimes, career desperation pays off. Like Fast & Furious itself, it’s almost never easy, but it can be satisfying in its own way.

by Bill Gibron

22 Jul 2009

With time comes perspective. With time comes greater understanding and wisdom. When you’re young, you don’t fully appreciate subtext and thematic resonance. When you’re building your own personal aesthetic, elements like context and creative boundaries are in their infancy, incapable of being readily comprehended and accepted. Back in the late ‘80s, a certain champion of independent cinema announced the arrival of a raw and gritty “war” film entitled Combat Shock. Best known for its hilarious horror comedy splatterfests like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, adolescent fans anticipated another raucous ripper, a genre gem made up of 60% rude attitude and 40% crude arterial spray. What they got instead was a dark and deadly serious look at a Vietnam veteran at the end of his rope. The only “shocking” for these seemingly disappointed Troma geeks was the level of unfiltered truth being hurled at the camera.

For you see, Buddy Giovinazzo’s urban grit masterwork remains a wholly unsettling experience. After the sudden massacre of an entire village, GI Frankie Dunlan (Buddy’s brother Rick) kills a Vietnamese girl. He is captured and sent to a POW camp. There, he is tortured for information. Later, he takes up residence in a VA hospital, but is still terrified of the nightmares he has surrounding the war. Now he’s an unemployed drifter, a married man with a pregnant wife and a mutant baby (the result of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange). With street hood Paco owning his very soul, there is very little hope for the failing family. Even a phone call to his once influential dad earns Frankie nothing but bad news. With his flashbacks getting more heated and the possibility of eviction on the horizon, our hero is not sure what to do - that is, until he happens to come into possession of a handgun.

Made before Oliver Stone’s apologetic Platoon and containing an entire squadron of squalor, Combat Shock - or as it was originally conceived, American Nightmare - is a brilliant, brazen denouncement of how our nation treated its returning war “heroes”, and a prophetic statement of how little things would change over the next three decades. Delivering a ‘day in the life’ portrait of poverty and pain so devastating that it just might lead you to the same suicidal conclusions haunting its main character, this is starkness as a soiled symphony. Sure, there seems to be obvious nods to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but Buddy Giovinazzo is not paying homage. Instead, he’s exploring the same urban and interpersonal horrors that stain both of those ‘70s classics, and doing so in a far ballsier manner than his far more famous celluloid brethren.

Combat Shock is clearly meant to be a political statement, albeit one wrapped up in the neo-realistic filth of a NYC crumbling into decay. There has never been a movie this fetid, this streaked with the stains of a million displaced and dour people. From the desolate apartment which Frankie calls home to the bombed out buildings that resemble the ruins of a defeated nation, Giovinazzo turns the Big Apple into one incredibly sour fruit. Even worse, he turns Frankie into the kind of hopeless case that no amount of government aid can help. With the constantly howling freak child in the crib and an angry, emasculating wife in his bed, our lead is less a man and more like a combination of quasi-human pieces. Held together with spit and sickness, Combat Shock ideas were always meant to be a slap in the face. Frankly, Troma fans didn’t expect it to sting so badly.

And that’s part of the film’s mythology - and misinterpretation. Back when Uncle Lloyd and the gang were seeking ways to market their films to the widest audience possible, Giovinazzo’s original 16mm American Nightmare was cut in order to conform to both ratings requirements and perceived commercial appeal. To this day, few have seen the longer version of the film and that’s a shame. Presented as part of the Tromasterpiece Collection of Combat Shock, Nightmare itself is quite amazing. It’s as disturbing and dark as the released take, but thanks to the added time (about ten more minutes overall), Giovinazzo has a chance to elaborate on all the possibilities he’s introduced. There’s more war both at home and in the battlefield, and a greater feeling of metropolitan alienation. We get more drugs, more death, more despair.

But that’s not all the new two disc DVD has to offer. Giovinazzo (now an expatriate living in Germany) is joined by controversial auteur Jörg Buttgereit for a commentary track that’s part trip back in time, part anecdotal evidence of Combat Shock‘s endearing genius. Our director has an answer and a story for everything, from the obvious allusions to one Henry Spencer to the unquestioned influence of the No Wave band Suicide (and the song “Frankie Teardrop”) on the movie. Buttgereit acts more like a fanboy, reflecting on elements of the film that he simply adores. This is carried over to the second part of the package, where many famous filmmakers (including John Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer McNaughton, William Maniac Lustig, and Roy Document of the Dead Fumkes, among many others) extrapolate on how influential - and unfairly marginalized - Giovinazzo and his movie truly are.

Perhaps The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber says it best when he describes Buddy’s brother Rick as being ‘Travis Bickle without all the pretense’, and it’s a feeling expanded upon by the brand new interviews with the men behind and in front of the camera. Looking nothing like their former selves, the Giovinazzos describe their early career as musicians (we see music videos for their band, as well as several startling short films) and speculate on how well Combat Shock holds up some 25 years later. They also explain some of the reactions they’ve had both then and now. Fleshing out said retrospective is a look at some of the locations. A few stand in sharp contrast to their former filthy selves. Others, sadly, have remained exactly the same (or horrifically, much worse). With trailers and the aforementioned copy of American Nightmare in tow, this is about as definitive as the digital format gets.

And we are dealing with a movie that definitely deserves it. Combat Shock may be a bad memory for anyone coming to the Troma title hoping for the standard bile, boobs, and beasts. It’s definitely more like The Bicycle Thief than Bloodsucking Freaks. In fact, if you are looking for a film that tells the true story about what life was like for returning veterans in the ‘70s, if you want all the pain and political posturing, unresolved emotions and lingering social failings, this is the film to seek out. Somewhere in the great halls of misbegotten movies stands a pedestal waiting for Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock. It’s a true American original, a portrait painted in the scum, sweat, and the fears of both its subject and its supporters. Time does have a tendency to play tricks on you. It can alter even the most concrete of critical snubs. A quarter of century ago, few found this film exceptional. Today, it stands as one of the ‘80s independent best.

by Bill Gibron

21 Jul 2009

We film critics hear it all the time - the endless creative mantra from the men behind the camera. “The studio made me trim it.” “The MPAA did most of the damage.” “Test groups didn’t like the (insert movie specific reference here) subplot, so it had to go.” “The ending didn’t ‘test’ well.” The need to edit, the contractually mandated rating (or running time), have long scuttled many an aesthetic aim. It’s almost as if - conspiracy theorists, listen up - a mediocre version of the movie is purposefully created for the mainstream so that the lowest common commercial denominator is fed and then forced aside.

Initially, the invention known as home video offered little solace. The VHS version of a film was supposed to be a full screen mimic of the theatrical experience - artistic compromises and all. Laserdisc promised more access to the “original” content, though it rarely had the opportunity to deliver. By the time that DVD was arriving, some studios saw a value in introducing the “extended” or “director’s” cut to their sell-through catalog. But it really took the new digital domain - and its even more complex cousin, Blu-ray - to pay true homage to the hard work of these marginalized moviemakers. In fact, today is seems like every new release is offered in both a theatrical and some manner of “unrated”, “uncensored”, or unabridged version.

Of course, some of these after-thought entries into the comprehensive collection ideal were fully anticipated. The ratings uproar over the first few Saw sequels caused director Darren Lynn Bousman to promise (and eventually provide) the true “blood and guts” vision of his horror titles. Indeed, almost every scary movie made is trimmed of some violent (or carnal) excess, only to see it restored later on. And then there is Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s brilliant adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “unfilmable” graphic novel masterwork. Almost from the very beginning, the man behind the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 alerted fans that he would have to eliminate some beloved material to make the movie version more ‘linear’. Some feared he would completely ruin the revered book.

They were dead wrong. As we learned back in March, Watchmen was and remains an epic masterpiece, a visually stunning tour de force that provided as much spectacle as subtext. In telling the story of a group of former masked avengers, it soared to unimaginable inventive heights. While you can read reviews and reactions to the theatrical version here (a good place to start, FYI), it’s clear that, after a disappointed performance at the box office, many wondered in the mandated cuts and missing material would make a difference. Now Warner Brothers is releasing the first of what will be two completely different edits of the film. While the “Ultimate Edition” won’t make it to stores until December, the first offering out of the box, featuring Snyder’s latest compilation, is nothing short of monumental.

Indeed, the new Director’s Cut, running 24 minutes longer than the theatrical release, is a revelation for both original fans of the film and those who thought the initial outing was, let’s say, less than impressive. Snyder adds dozens of new scenes, shots of original Nite Owl Hollis Mason getting his unjust final desserts, moments of sheer blood-shedding as Dr. Manhattan overruns Vietnam. The big blue God gets his relationship with Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Specter II) expanded, while formerly forgotten characters like the News Vendor and the Comic Reader have been reintroduced - if barely - into the narrative. In all, many of the complaints leveled against the film have been addressed. It flows better, has more of a psychological and emotional bite, and really highlights the superhero deconstruction which made Moore’s literary interpretation of the genre a considered classic.

Some may feel cheated when they learn that separate projects previously released on digital - the animated Tales of the Black Freighter and Watchmen: The Motion Comic as well as the mock doc Under the Hood - aren’t present here. They are being reserved for the bigger, more impressive five disc set a few months from now. But for anyone who has a question as to whether or not to purchase this particular version of the film, the answer is a solid “yes”. Not only do you get one of the best films of 2009, a rarity in both content and creativity, but you walk into one of the most immersive, in-depth home video experiences ever…especially on Blu-ray.

There, the 2.40:1 image is stunningly recreated in pristine 1080p. The movie looks almost three dimensional in its crystal clarity. The sound is also amped up thanks to the lossless DTS HD Master 5.1 English audio mix. The overall technical experience is immersive, matching the Cineplex presentation facet-for-facet. But where fans will really rejoice is in the added content department. Warners has asked Snyder to take all the EPK material and making-of documentaries created for the film and incorporate them into a point-by-point feature known as “{Maximum Movie Mode”. With the noted director as our host and guide, we get three hours of video commentary and asides, picture in picture clips and tag-along Q&As with the cast, as well as a trivia timeline comparing the real world to the Watchmen universe.

It’s here where we learn the intricacies of the rough cut run through. Snyder explains why certain scenes were trimmed, offering insights into “creativity by committee” decisions and the implied needs of the audience. He also highlights little details often overlooked by first-time viewers and direct shout-outs to Moore and Gibbons. Elsewhere, the actors discuss their desire to stay true to their characters while bringing these complex beings to life, and the crew addressed concerns regarding the use of CGI, how Dr. Manhattan was created, and the decision to be less “realistic” with the recreation of famous faces within this parallel universe. Along with three excellent supplements on the second disc, we have reason enough to own this particular package.

But it’s Watchmen itself that needs one more additional push. While it failed to wholly deliver on its pre-determined blockbuster status, this is still a fantastic film. It has gravity and weight, the underlying horror of global thermal nuclear war reminding us that, at least back in the early ‘80s, we had more to fear than criminals and the masked men and women who chased after them. The looming threat, the notion of human extinction placed alongside the dying breed of vigilante’s gives the movie an edge and a somber subtext that hard to shake. With pitch perfect performances from everyone in the cast (especially the Oscar-worthy work of Jackie Earle Haley as the psychotic soul of the Watchmen, Rorschach), it’s up to Snyder to guide us through this well-woven web of intrigue, doubt, and deception -and he does so effortlessly.

In a clear case of “improving on perfection”, the new director’s cut of Watchmen takes an already stellar work and makes it even more powerful. Time will grant this astonishing effort the critical consensus it so richly requires. This is a film that submerges us into this world of disgruntled heroes, tired villains, weak-willed politicians, and the one unknown force that is driving them all toward Armageddon. It’s a dense ride, often needing, nay mandating more than one visit to figure out all the nuances. But those with the patience to work their way through the intricacies will be rewarded with something grand indeed. As well as Watchmen worked the first time around, this extended version is even better. It just goes to prove that, sometimes, a required revisit it well worth the wait.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jul 2009

We critics are often accused of celebrating the theatrical experience to the detriment of those who can only afford (or socially tolerate) the home video version of same. There’s no real difference, they argue, and point to DVD and its newest format cousin Blu-ray as a means of making their commercial point. With clarity and crispness of image no longer an issue and the lack of etiquette challenged audience members to contend with, the living room beats the Cineplex every time - or does it?

Henry Selick’s Coraline is a perfect example of this entertainment dichotomy. On the one hand, the new Blu-ray from Universal is so special, so jam-packed with added content goodness, that it’s not hard to see why some would wait a few months to experience the film in such an expansive, insightful manner. On the other hand, no amount of technological tweaking can recreate the stunning Real 3D image offered when the movie opened last March. The two color process offered as part of the two disc collector’s edition, while acceptable, drains some of the magic from the movie.

And Coraline is all about magic. The wistful nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is indeed potent. The moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.

Yet somewhat lost among the mythic mix is aforementioned genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach), he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed. 

When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor. 

One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!

In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.

Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and expanding on characters barely considered in the book. As a result, Coraline feels like that motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.

Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.

Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification.

Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.

Present for almost every bit of added content here, Selick explains the journey of Coraline from page to screen in such a compelling fashion that we forgive the occasional directorial foolishness of the people making the bonus features (quick jump cuts, random editing jumbles). His commentary clarifies facets about Coraline’s home life, while the deleted scenes show that not every inch of stop-motion footage makes it into the film. The voice actors get their say, as does Gaiman, who is very proud of the results.

Technically, the movie looks amazing, the Blu-ray capturing the level of detail Selick strived for flawlessly. But we are still along way off from viewing the film in the perfected 3D of the theatrical experience. The two color concept does work, but drains a lot of the color out of the image in the process. Other elements like U-Control and BD Live! add even more to the overall experience. 

In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.

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.

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