In '300: Rise of Empire' We See How Xerxes Became That Bald, Pierced Badass

If 300 is the cinematic equivalent of a video game, then 300: Rise of an Empire, is at water level: murky, awkward and not nearly as fun.

300: Rise of an Empire

Director: Noah Murro
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Rodrigo Santoro.
Distributor: Warner
Rated: R
Release date: 2014-06-24

If 300’s over-the-top style,linear storytelling, boss fights, and CG cutscenes are in fact the cinematic equivalent of a video game, than it’s sequel/prequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is akin to a water level. The follow-up to the 2007 surprise success is murky, awkward and not nearly as fun as Snyder’s original film.

300: Rise of an Empire follows the story of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the Athenian warrior responsible for killing Xerxes’ father, Darius, and sending Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) on his maniacal war campaign against the Greek city-states. Themistokles is an accomplished naval commander and believes that a united Greece can stand strong against the Persian forces.

When he’s not out disemboweling the enemy, he spends his time trying to convince the Spartan Queen Gogol (Lena Headey) that it is in Sparta’s and Greece’s best interests to unite on the seas against the eastern invaders. The events of the original 300 occur midway through the film and undoubtedly have a strong impact on Gogol’s final decision.

On the Persian side, Xerxes has sent out his own naval commander, Artemisia (Vera Green). Greek by birth, her family was brutally killed by her own “countrymen”, herself held captive until the raiders had no use for her. She was saved by a Persian emissary and is partially responsible for Xerxes god-like status. To say she has a hatred for the Greeks is an understatement.

Artemisia and Themistokles meet over and over again in battle, constantly one-upping each other, but never having ultimate success. Their rivalry--sprinkled with a little bit of begrudging admiration and an awkward sex scene (Snyder’s MO)--is the core of the film and exceeds the simple me versus you of the Leonidas and Xerxes conflict from the first film.

Green’s performance is delightfully over the top, channeling her character’s troubled past into a tormented present, relishing in her power as queen of the navy but jealous at playing second fiddle to the men. Her costumes are almost as outlandish as her penchant for making out with dismembered heads.

On the other hand, Stapleton’s Themistokles, the Athenian golden-boy, is a bit more restrained than the likes of Artemisia, Xerxes and Leonidas. At times, he runs the risk of blurring into the background of brown-haired, light-skinned, Greek hardbodies. Stapleton plays the role well, and keeps the story from becoming too unhinged, but he’s not given much work with as an action lead. His heroic speeches are fathoms below those bellowed by Gerard Butler and, like much of the B-plotlines, echo as sallow shades of the first film.

As noted, each character is set up with a back-story at the beginning (again, like in a video game), so that the audience knows why they are doing what they are doing. However, what gives motivation to a character can also destroy the mythical elements and mystery that made something like the original 300 work.

In that movie, Xerxes was this crazy, seven-foot god-king that commanded an army of monsters that the Spartans had never seen before. Given the story was told largely from the Spartan point of view, by inbred warriors who had never left their peninsula, the over-the-top nature was appropriate and back story was not needed.

In Rise of an Empire, we see how Xerxes went from an everyday-Persian prince to a bald and pierced badass. I suppose this is taken from Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the god-king, but it weakens the villain in the eyes of the audience by removing any hint of danger (especially when that villain rarely does anything after the first ten minutes of the film).

Likewise, many of the larger than life monsters and feats of the Spartans are missing from the naval battles. Grounding the narrative in a more familiar reality takes away some of the other-worldliness, making the myth less entertaining in its over-the-top storytelling.

The cinematography and direction is partially responsible for this lack of awe. Gone are the wide, sun-streaked vistas laid out in the first film. They’ve been replaced with a myriad of night scenes, dark storm clouds and shadows that muddy up the frame. Judging by this movie, the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean sea are themselves a myth, hiding a continuously raging black-water where lighting never stops striking over the murky horizon.

At times the film does reach moments of beauty, such as a sequence involving the ignition of oil-soaked water, or an extended take toward the end where Themistokles does battle with a number of Artemisia’s bodyguards. However, most of the time the camera is close, focusing on the slow-mo bloodletting. The first film was by no means stingy with its use of CG blood, but Rise of an Empire lets the red flow without mercy; it gets old really quickly. Likewise, the use of slow-mo seems to be haphazard, not really adding impetus to the action or demonstrating a particular piece of Spartan flair.

And that’s the problem with the film in general. With regards to both story and style, 300: Rise of an Empire is an ill-defined piece of cinema. While the original 300 was defined by Snyder’s stylistic, the prequel/sequel lacks any clarity. Director Noam Murro does his best to create intense action pieces, but he seems to be split between his own sensibilities and those of his producers (of which Snyder is one).

In this film, we have Snyder’s “epic” slow-mo shots, close-up shaky cam shots, effects laden POV shots, and murky underwater cams. It’s as if the production team couldn’t decide whether to do a straight copy of the first movie or try something new, and instead got something in-between.

The film was shot for 3D, something that is immediately notable and disconcerting when watching from home in the regular Blu-ray mode. While I’m sure the 3D effects like splattered blood on the camera were pretty cool in the theater, at home, without 3D capability, they quickly become boring. There are lots of lens flares and particles of snow/embers/dust flying through the air in every shot.

Extras on the Blu-ray disc include deleted scenes and storyboards, a discussion of the myth and bringing the second story to life, general praise for the cast and crew, and a profile detailing the actors’ training for the film. A series of short pieces details the actual historic events that inspired this film and the original.

300: Rise of an Empire falters under the weight of its simple story. The choice to focus on dark naval battles and de-mythicize its otherworldly villains ruins the purely action-based spectacle of the original film. The title and tagline hint at something epic, but like most video game water levels, even the most hardcore fans will find it frustrating. In the end, it makes one have a new appreciation for what Snyder accomplished stylistically in the first film, and realize how pale the imitations to said style have become.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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