By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
Man, woman, gay, straight, bi: There's something for everyone in 300: Rise of an Empire, the XXL sequel to the also-larger-than-life Greeks-in-shinguards extravaganza 300. In that picture, directed by Zack Snyder and based on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the three-day Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the Spartans and their small but mighty army kicked the asses of the Persians, with much yelling, grunting, and spilling of black-red CGI blood. Though it isn't exactly a sequel, Rise of an Empire might have been essentially more of the same, but for one distinction that makes it 300 times better than its predecessor: Mere mortals of Athens, Sparta, and every city from Mumbai to Minneapolis, behold the magnificent Eva Green, and tremble!
While warrior-king Leonidas was mixing it up at Thermopylae, Athenian general Themistocles was doing his damnedest to fend off the Persian navy at nearby Artemisium. That's the conflict dramatized in 300: Rise of an Empire, also based on source material by Miller, this time with Israeli director Noam Murro at the helm (though Snyder had a hand in the screenplay). Once again, real, live human actors have been subjected to some unholy CGI process that renders their skin poreless and flat — it glows like reconstituted marble. And again, 99.9 per cent of the characters are men who run around jabbing swords into one another's sternums and going, "Gaaah!" This time they're just doing it at sea.
You don't need to have seen 300 to get the gist of Rise of an Empire, though it probably helps. Gerard Butler does not make a return as Leonidas, though his face shows up in the admittedly stunning opening shot, a brownish jumble of dead bodies that gradually shifts into a death tableau rendered in muted but glowing colors, like medieval stained glass. This time around, Themistocles, gentle-spirited but tough as a lion's claw, is the star of the show — he's played by Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom, Gangster Squad), who musters at least a few whiskers' worth of authority as he delivers sub-St. Crispin's Day lines like, "We choose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!" Those who loved 300 — or even just those who recall it as a beefcake blur — will note the return of several characters, among them Lena Headey's stern, no-makeup-look Queen Gorgo, David Wenham's one-eyed warrior Dilios, and, best of all, Rodrigo Santoro's Persian god-king Xerxes, who once again graces the screen with his multiple piercings, gold-dipped skin, and glistening chrome dome. He's like the Oscar Statuette crossed with Mr. Clean.
Other delights for people of all sexes and persuasions include an adorable swain in a mini-kilt (Jack O'Connell) and an array of impressive digitally created backgrounds. Of those, the Persian ones are the best: The interiors are dazzling, a riot of elaborate panther carvings and gently shimmering fish-scale patterns. It's always a disappointment when the action shifts back to Athens, with its tasteful, businesslike columns and guys walking around solemnly in rough tunics, each held together with a little clip.
Admittedly, even if you're not really one for digital effects, the whole enterprise looks pretty grand. Yet the finest spectacle in all of Rise of an Empire is a human being: Eva Green plays resident bad gal Artemisia, commander of the Persian navy. As a child, she watched as Greek soldiers raped and killed members of her family; then the Greeks made her a slave, violating her and leaving her for dead. She was rescued by Persians and trained as a warrior. Now she hates all Greek men — wouldn't you? — though her hormones kick into love-hate overdrive when she gets a gander at Themistocles and his noble brow (among other attributes).
But really, who's looking at him? In her every scene — and thankfully, she's in lots of them — Green's Artemisia is something to behold. She makes her entrance in a fringed leather gown with a molded breastplate, sweeping into the Persian palace like a B.C. Morticia Addams. From there, her costumes become even more elaborate: There are one-shouldered numbers draped with chains and dotted with grommets, shimmery columns that resemble liquid metal, and, perhaps finest of all, a skin-tight sheath with a row of silver spikes running down her spinal column like a violent shiver. Artemisia wears gowns even onboard her ship, fer Chrissakes. Her over-the-topness — and, in one scene, her resplendent toplessness — really gets Rise of an Empire cooking.
Green is a far better actress than she's usually given credit for. In Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, her debut, she captured perfectly that bumpy stage in the growing-up timeline when you're hoping to mask coming-of-age awkwardness with been-there, done-that sophistication. And as James Bond's doomed love, Vesper, in Casino Royale, she blended gravity with vulnerability, a hard mix to get right whether you're shaking or stirring.
Green knows just what to do in 300: Rise of an Empire: She takes the dialogue seriously but gives each line a mischievous tweak. Artemisia commands her naval warriors as if she were telling them what to do in bed: "Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks," she purrs, pronouncing the word dance "dahnse" — because that's what an all-powerful enchantress would do. When she lowers her kohl-rimmed eyes, the sailors hear, and they obey. They'll kill for her, and they'll die for her. Green makes it all look like dahnsing.
"Man, woman, gay, straight, bi: There's something for everyone in 300"
Especially pop-fascists. Rifenstahl lives... as an MTV-epic director.
A GREAT myth in popular culture is that of Europeans having saved their civilization by defeating the Persian army. It goes with the fears of our times. The historical sequence according to Herodotus, who wrote 2,400 years ago, was this: In 480 BC, Persia’s emperor Xerxes marched into Greece to punish the city of Athens, which had interfered militarily in one of his colonies on the west coast of Turkey. Most Greek states on his path surrendered to Xerxes. Sparta lost one skirmish against his army and then refused to fight. The people of Athens abandoned their city to Xerxes and fled to an island in the south called Salamis. Reaching Athens, the Persians burnt it down. Having spent his anger, Xerxes returned to Asia, where he would rule another 15 years, before dying in 465 BC. That is how the story should have ended. But that would be conceding victory to barbarians and so a fable was created pitting freedom-loving Europeans defending themselves against slavish Asians. Two other battles were invented to fulfil this vengeance, one on land and the other on sea. The film released this month, 300: Rise of an Empire, depicts the battle of Salamis, in which the Athenian navy destroys the Persian navy. But Persia had no navy, and Herodotus himself writes that the Persians crossed the Dardanelles into Europe on foot over a makeshift boat bridge. In any case, naval battles were not conclusive in that era because there was no firepower. Ships were slow and powered by oarsmen. Fighting was carried out by ramming a ship on its side, immobilizing it and, if the ship sank, drowning those soldiers who could not swim. This is not an efficient way to do battle and the Greek naval victory would have meant little. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus fought at Salamis and later wrote the play, The Persians. It is hysterical and not among his better works. The prequel to the movie, the original 300, gives an even more fantastic story, that of 300 Spartans holding the entire Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae to the last man. This effort helps the Athenians to escape. Herodotus says Xerxes had 2.6 million fighting men (including the ubiquitous Indian mercenaries) with that number again in support. A total, according to him, of 5,283,220 men, a scarcely creditable figure in a time of no mechanized transport. Herodotus was a liar according to Plutarch (who was also a liar as the Enlightenment Europeans eventually realized). But even his lies were added to. He never claims it is 300 men but actually 7,300 and perhaps more. The battle lasted two days, at the end of which the Persians found a way around the pass and obliterated the Greeks. However, many of the Greeks had fled by then, according to Herodotus, and the deserters included Spartans, so all 300 did not sacrifice themselves. Herodotus says in the end there were 4,000 Greek dead, meaning there were at least 3,300 deserters. It isn’t possible even for 7,000 men to hold two million, let alone 300, and this should have been immediately obvious to those who went weak at the knees at tales of Spartan heroism. The war of 480 BC was not fought between democrats and despots: The Spartans were also led by a king, Leonidas, and they were hardly democratic. They enslaved their own people, the Helots. They killed two Persian ambassadors sent by Xerxes’ father Darius, throwing them into a well. Everything about the story from motive to numbers to sequence is false. But it persists strongly enough for a movie to be made about it in 2014 purely from a sense of xenophobia. I would say: Enjoy Hollywood’s wars, but don’t believe the line “Based on a true story”.
@szacharek Eva Green's back-and-forth w/ Daniel Craig on the train in "Casino Royale" is worth the price of admission for the whole film.
I absolutely adore Sullivan Stapleton! I was reading about his sister who is actress Jacinta Stapleton here http://enewsdaily.net/jacinta-stapleton-300-rise-of-an-empire-actor-sullivan-stapleton-sister/
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