Tag Archives: Lena Headey

300: Rise of an Empire

300-rise-of-an-empire-bannerDespite its competent production, 300: Rise of an Empire is a disgusting and repulsive piece of dreck.

by Callum Petch

I honestly don’t think that anybody involved with the creative side of 300: Rise of an Empire is a bad person.  OK, maybe Frank Miller, but other than this being a very loose telling of his unpublished Xerxes series he has nothing to do with the film in question.  This sign of good faith, admittedly, is because I prefer to try and see the good in most people (I may physically be 19, but my mental age and naivety is a lot lower) and also because I don’t know anybody involved with the creation of 300: Rise of an Empire personally, so I’d feel kinda bad calling them bad people sight unseen.  What I don’t think anybody involved does have, however, is any kind of self-awareness.  Like, none.  At all.  See, if they did have some self-awareness, then they might have realised that the movie they were responsible for making is actually horrifically misogynistic, racist and supportive of doomed offensives.

I’m going to stop for a second here before I get down to business.  This review is not going to talk much about the film in the way that you may typically see films reviewed.  You know: I give a plot summary, point out some good stuff and some bad stuff, praise or trash the acting and wrap up from there.  Purely technical terms, “[x action scene] was pretty exciting, [y actor] was as convincing as a cardboard standee of [y actor]”.  No, that’s not happening here and if that’s what you’re looking for, I am sorry to disappoint you.  Fact of the matter is, how this film is as a constructed product (and that constructed product is “boring meeeeeeeeehhhhh”) is but a distraction from the more problematic undertones that this film seems to unintentionally peddle.  I will eventually talk about the film as you would expect me to, but that’s only if there’s still time.  Take this info how you may and either keep reading or don’t.

OK, into the breach.

The major problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, the problem that left me leaving the cinema feeling dirty for having experienced it, is that it doesn’t think.  It’s so determined to be cool, to be action-y and manly and exciting and violent and “LOOK, THAT GUY’S RIDING A HORSE IN A NAVAL BATTLE THROUGH FIRE!!” that it never seems to just stop and think about what it’s actually doing.  It has noble Greeks facing off against eeeeevilll Persians… where the Greeks are all white or tanned and the Persians are of a foreign persuasion.  It has a badass female character who actually has the most developed backstory of anyone else in the film… and then makes her a villain with The Tragic Backstory (the one tragic backstory that all male writers, without fail, will saddle their Dark Action Women with to justify their behaviour) and a quirk that I can’t talk about because it constitues a spoiler but OH MY GOD.  It has a hero who fights for democracy and knows that Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are doomed for their hubris… except that he’s counting on it failing because it will unite everyone behind their senseless sacrifice and milks that for all its worth.

This is the issue.  On paper, divorced from further context, these sound fine.  Good vs Evil is the basis for most every story, well-developed and badass female characters need to be more of a frequent presence in action movies and having characters recognise that the Spartan march isn’t as romantic a notion as it sounds are all great ways to go.  There’s a lot you can do here.  But, for some utterly bewildering reason, the film keeps making the worst decisions with these ideas simply because it sounds cool.  And at no point did anybody stop anyone else involved and explain to them the wider implications of what their decisions entail.

Take, for example, Themistocles (Strike Back’s Sullivan Stapleton rarely showing the charm and charisma he showed in Strike Back) and his attitudes towards the Spartan march on Hot Gates.  He knows it’s doomed and he knows it’s foolish, as you can tell because every so often he voices his concerns that they’re going to get slaughtered, yet his entire plan revolves around lionising the 300 as martyrs to the cause of Greek democracy, thereby uniting Greece against the Persians.  I take issue with this because this, to me at least, gives off the impression that those involved are supportive of doomed offensives against enemies because of the propaganda material they provide.  Having the lead character very occasionally state his belief that the Spartans’ offensive will fail is not enough of an offset for the scene in which he gets said news and reacts with (thanks to the very limited range of emotions characters display in this film) what one can charitably describe as glee.  I’d like to see Themistocles’ take on The Battle Of The Somme, he’d likely grumble a bit about its doomed-to-failure-ness but then base his entire plan around claiming it to be the greatest piece of tactical mastery the British Forces ever came up with.  Because that’s how you unite the peoples.

Quite honestly, though, that’s nothing compared to the film’s two female characters.  Yes, two.  Admittedly, I’m pretty sure that’s one whole person of the female orientation more than the original 300 provided us with, but it’s still a man-run show, despite Eva Green as Artemesia trying her damndest otherwise.  Despite her ever omniscient narration, Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey who I really wish would star in an action flick that knows how to use her for once) is otherwise in the film only three other times and two of those involve her sulking and refusing to help the Greeks.  I’m not saying that she needed to spend the majority of the film fighting alongside the Greeks and slaughtering people left and right; what I am saying is that she needs a character.  Because she doesn’t have one.  She has the Obstructive Bureaucrat archetype and that’s it.

As if to make up for this, Artemesia is easily the most developed character populating Rise of an Empire.  But, yes, said development involves a childhood where [x] happens and then she spends the next several years [y] before being left for dead, found by That One Persian Guy From The Last 300 Who Was Also In (The Much, Much, Much Better) Spartacus: Blood And Sand.  Assuming that those of you reading this are relatively seasoned movie watchers, you should already be able to figure out what x and y are.  But although it left a bad taste in my mouth (because I am so sick of lazy filmmakers always going for [y] when they want to justify their Dark Action Women), it wasn’t derailing the show and especially not Eva Green’s performance, which I can basically equate to a ham and cheese interpretation of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Of everyone else in this film, she’s the only one who’s having any fun and not just relying on their physical presence to carry them through.

Except then the film frames her insane lust for violence down to not having a good strong man fighting alongside her.  It’s hinted at early on, when she notes that she’s “surrounded by thousands yet I feel so alone” (or words to that effect) about her underlings’ lack of success in bringing down the Greeks.  Then it becomes all but full-blown text when she invites Themistocles to neutral ground, turns into a temptress and…  No, I’m not going to spoil it.  Needless to say, it frames all of their actions afterward, including the final battle, in a much uglier light and culminates in an action that, the very second the inadvertent subtext that the film had amassed up to that point joined up with the action in question in my head, caused me to unintentionally shout out “JESUS H. CHRIST” in the crowded cinema.  I was that disgusted by what I saw.  And my leading to this realisation and outburst wasn’t on purpose, I wasn’t trying to see the action as something awful, my brain had simply applied what the film had inadvertently told me about Artemesia beforehand to that action and the reaction unfolded.  I felt dirty for having witnessed it and, if you too pay attention to the subtext, you will know it when you see it.

Quite honestly, on any other day, the fact that the Greeks black up for the finale would have been the headline, here.  OK, their faces are supposed to be painted like that of a white skeleton on a black back-nope that looks even worse written down.  Not to mention the fact that, again, we have a predominately white cast representing absolute good fighting a predominately non-white cast representing absolute evil.  That was a problem in the first 300, it was a problem in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and time has not made it any better.  See, the problem with doing cool things without thought is that stuff like this happens.  You get across a tonne of unfortunate implications and enough of them can make the whole film a slowly more repulsive experience that gets harder to tolerate the longer it goes on.

Stepping away from the subtext, now, although, quite frankly, discussing the film removed from it feels pointless.  See, Rise of an Empire, which takes place before and during and after 300 and depicts Themistocles’ attempts to unite Greece against the invading Persian army and navy, is a competently made and forgettable action flick.  If its various bits of inadvertently horrendous subtext weren’t there, this review would not currently be halfway through its third page.  That’s how dispensable this film is.  Excepting Eva Green, nobody turns in a particularly noteworthy performance.  After the first particularly exciting and interesting naval battle, the rest blend into one anonymous amorphous blob.  The hand-to-hand fight scenes are “meeeeh” and the copious CG is clearly going for stylish but too often seems to use that as an excuse for just plain sloppy switches between live-action actors and CG models handling the more exciting moments (pretty much the entire opening battle is done in CG, to an extent that makes me wonder why the actors even bothered coming in that week).  And the signature Zack Snyder “slo-mo-speed-up-super-slo-mo-speed-up-slo-mo-again” visual style that’s perfectly aped by director Noam Murro is still really stupid and nowhere near as cool as it thinks it is.

In other words, it’s an inoffensive product.  A bland, average and dull movie that doesn’t have anything bad happening on the surface or within its individual components.  All of the film’s big, giant, offensive, enjoyment-killing problems come from the inadvertent subtext that it presents with that big, dumb, loud, violent and inoffensive surface.  More forgiving critics or fans of the film will insist you need to “turn off your brain to appreciate it”.  I’m sorry but fuck that.  Firstly because it presents the incorrect notion that fun movies don’t need to be smart (and I wouldn’t even call this one fun, in all honesty, unless “mind-crushing dullness” sounds like your idea of a party) but also because it gives off the idea that it doesn’t matter what kind of horrible ideology and iconography a film can slip by as long as the surface is cool enough, and that is a concept I refuse to abide by.

Words and actions carry unintended meanings and consequences and for every 10 people (most likely men, in all honesty; this is a film made for straight, hormonal and possibly teenaged men) who watch the war room sequence that I started describing earlier with glee, there will be at least 1 other person horrified by what they are seeing because they aren’t distracted by the pretty lights.  They paid attention to the undertones of the film’s cool sequences and they started getting uneasy.  The film shouts “Look at these beefy white men slaughtering all of these evil baddies!  Isn’t this fun?  Pay no attention to their skin colour, if you do you’re thinking way more than we did when we made it!”  “Isn’t this line we gave Eva Green badass?  She’s so strong and powerful and sexy!  Just divorce it from everything else that surrounds it as, in context with what surrounds it, it may be kinda disturbing but who cares BADASS FIGHT SEQUENCE!  COOL COOL COOL!”  but that person is having none of it.  They’re disturbed, offended, worried that the slightly sickening undertones are being played off for fun.  Just another gory, dumb action romp.  You can’t read too much into these things(!)

No.  Fuck that.  The idea that I should let 300: Rise of an Empire off for its accidental racism, misogyny (dear Maker, I will never get that action out of my head, and if you’re dying to know what it is tweet me and I’ll tell you) and whatever-the-word-is-for-attitudes-towards-senseless-sacrifice-that-I-don’t-agree-with because it’s supposed to be a big dumb action film and I shouldn’t read so much into these things is deplorable and I refuse to accept it.  We shouldn’t let films off for being “good enough given the circumstances” or to state that “turning your brain off” will somehow increase your enjoyment for a film.  No, we should just demand better goddamn movies and take films with as disgusting an inadvertent subtext as 300: Rise of an Empire to the same task as we do genuinely racist films like Birth of a Nation.  Being a big, dumb action film should no longer be an acceptable pass-grade excuse for a problematic film such as this one.

When I left 300: Rise of an Empire, I felt like I had set cinema back several years.  Do not.  Spend money. On this.

Callum Petch is outta control but he’s playing a role and he thinks he can go to the eighteenth hole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Blackwater (s2, ep9)

When I found out that Failed Critics would be running a series on greatest ever TV episodes, a few shows came to mind. However there is one from recent memory that is more deserved of a praise than anything I’ve seen in years.

As the world had come to accept fantasy drama as mainstream following the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Game of Thrones took that world by storm in 2011, when it was launched into realism as a TV drama out of the pages of its author George R. R. Martin. Where GOT differs from other classical mythology of Tolkien-ilk, is its unyielding portrayal of real-world brutality and shocking morality.

The new series was an overnight success and quickly became the most talked about TV show on the Internet, as people scurried to find out more from the existing texts than their weekly supplement could satisfy. Wheels are set into motion in the first episode of the very first series, pitching five families against one another for survival and ownership of the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Blackwater, the penultimate episode of the second series, is arguably the culmination of all the episodes of GOT that came before it, as circumstances create a chain of events and pawns are strategically (or sometimes less strategically) placed for the infamous ‘Battle of Blackwater Bay’.

The episode begins with the patrons of King’s Landing (the kingdom’s capital) laying in wait of the wrath of would-be King, Stannis Baratheon. The capital is ill-armed, ill-prepared and under-manned due to an ongoing war with the Northern uprising (led by Robb Stark). The tension in the air is truly palpable as troops drunkenly await their call to arms, as particularly highlighted by a delicate conversation between Sandor Cligane (The Hound) and sell-sword, Bronn (Jerome Flynn).

As the city faces seemingly insurmountable odds, the scene appears grim as the army of Stannis sails right into Blackwater Bay without any interjection from the defending King’s army. Cruel King Joffre Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) flouts the possibility of defeat despite making zero preparation, all of which has been left to the most intelligent and charismatic character of the series, Tyrion Lannister (the King’s uncle) played by the extraordinary and Emmy award-winning Peter Dinklage.

Bronn-stands-tall-in-the-Battle-of-Blackwater

As the city forces take position at the walls, the King panics when he sees only one defensive ship in his harbour sailing directly into the ensuring armada. The attacking forces also curious as to why only one boat sails out to meet them begin to suspect a trap, but it is too late by the time they see the neon green substance leaking from the defending ship and a solitary flaming arrow flying over their heads…

What follows is the most spectacular piece of television I’ve ever witnessed, as the flaming arrow ignites the substance called ‘Wildfire’, thus creating a huge explosion of semi-biblical proportions and a shower of death closely resembling napalm, as a significant number of Stannis’ forces are consumed and their ships destroyed.

Stannis, unimpressed and non-relenting to the devastation, tells his forces to attack. When prompted by one of his commanders that so many are dead and many more will surely perish if they attack, Stannis merely responds with ‘Thousands…’.

A siege then begins as Stannis’ remaining troops storm the bay and even following the Wildfire attack still outnumber the defending troops. An impressive battle of archery and swordplay ensues on the beach between defenders and attackers, and there appears to be hope for the defenders of King’s Landing, until the King himself panics and retreats to the inner walls of the city, leading to his troops losing morale and ceasing to defend.

Reluctantly Tyrion (who happens to be a dwarf) has no choice but to lead an attack himself in the King’s absence to save the city. He is able to sneak a garrison of troops behind the attacks as they ram down the gate and begin to ascend the city walls, but they are greatly outnumbered and all seems lost as Tyrion is struck down by one of the City guards, at the orders of rival sibling Cersei (Lena Headey).

At the very last, a charge of cavalry is seen smashing into the attackers and the King’s grandfather, Tywin Lannister pronounces the battle over, just before Cersei can administer her youngest son with poison to save him from the wrath of Stannis.

The Blackwater episode is very much comparable with the Battle of Helm’s Deep from LOTR’s The Two Towers yet, in my opinion, is more impressive and unquestionably more graphic. The GOT universe until this point had almost exclusively been forged in a Medieval mythology that is compatible with real history. All that changes with the introduction of alchemy via Wildfire, and then sorcery by the end of the series with ascension of Dragon’s and the rise of the un-dead from beyond the Wall.

Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the hottest property on TV currently, and the whole-world is on count down to the launch of Season 3 in early April 2013. It’s like watching a fantastic hour long movie every week and, like any good show, it leaves you desperately awaiting the next episode. Whatever Season 3 has in store, it certainly has a great deal to live up to following the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the finest pieces of television you’ll have seen in many years.

Judgement time. Sentence: my favourite movie of 2012

Dredd Karl UrbanYes, yes… before I get into the nitty-gritty, it’s not ‘The Best Film of 2012’, certainly at least from a technical standpoint, and it won’t even make a blip on the radar of the Academy. That said, it fared very well in the Failed Critics end of year reviews for 2012, but I felt it was under-represented. As the movie has just had it’s home-release I decided to give it a 2nd time viewing and provide my thoughts to the masses. I am of course talking about Dredd 3D.

Let’s ditch the 3D moniker right away, it’s both pointless and adds little to the splendour of this film. The film is the fan’s realisation of a dream almost condemned to eternal humiliation thanks to the 1995 Stallone dirge. That said, I’m not a comic book fan, I never read the Dredd comics so I owe no loyalty to the franchise so I feel I’m in a position to give this movie a glowing review without being seen to be unfairly pay homage to the legacy of the ink-work.

The movie is based in a non too distant future whereby most of the United States are barron and large Cities are joined together to form Mega Cities. There is little respect for the stature of law or morality in this image of the future and justice in the form of ‘Judges’ is dished out in an equally nonchalant manner. The movie follows a day in the working life of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) as he takes rookie psychic Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on a live-assessment of her capabilities as a Judge. The assessment leads them to investigate a triple homicide at a run-down Apartment Tower occupied by the city’s leading drug cartel, lead by the cruel and violent Ma-Ma (Lena Headey).

As you’d expect, either as a comic fan or a casual viewer, the violence is dished out willingly and readily during the movie. That said it somehow manages to do an excellent job of not making it over-kill. The deaths come with somewhat purpose and they have impact, either in the visceral sense or in the development of the story. Karl Urban does an incredible job with such little real-estate in an acting performance to convey emotion and even intimidate with only his chin on show at all times. Yes, fans…. he never removes the helmet!

Thirlby plays an excellent green and naive heroin but develops nicely into a more confident and even sexy character as she is exposed to the real harshness that she has likely been shielded from before joining the Department of Justice. The show stealer goes to Lena Headey as the psychotic Ma-Ma, who is really building a reputation for herself as a powerhouse female lead on the back of her performances in 300 and more recently as the self-serving Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. She takes that quality to an all new form of dementia in Dredd and provides a terrifying crime-boss with zero empathy or consideration for human-life which see expends rather casually and somewhat joyfully.

The action never runs dry in Dredd, the dialogue is economical (as it should be) and delivered with tremendous authority, particularly by Urban. A particular highlight comes during the set-piece where by Dredd & Anderson avoid total annihilation when their floor of the building is subject to heavy Mini-Gun fire, the bad-guys expect zero survivors  including the inhabitants of the apartment block. Ma-Ma waits anxiously as he troops plough through the carnage to find the bodies,   yet we only here 3 short single gun-shots and the silhouette of Dredd emerging to toss a bad-guy from the balcony.

Dredd is pure entertainment. It doesn’t have the greatest depth of story or character development, it doesn’t have the very best acting and it doesn’t even had the best effects (although the Slow-Mo drug scenes are quite pretty). But what it is, is a triumph for adult film making. It’s a care-free 18, it’s a barely financially viable proposition these days. I compare it much to the original Robocop, whereby it features nothing of interest to anyone who does not have an interest in on-screen violence. Perhaps this is also a weakness as it maybe threatens the possibility of a sequel.

However, Dredd for me was the film that I most wanted to discuss immediately after leaving the cinema, more than any other film in 2012. It’s entertainment at the detriment of its commercial potential, sacrificed to deliver a fully adult cinema experience. I think the tide of mass-entertainment is creating a niche for this kind of product. The recent success of highly graphic television such as Game of Thrones suggest that the masses do not only want their episodes of Friends rinsed and repeated several times daily and maybe a little Breaking Bad to satisfy their subliminal criminal urges; they actually want violence, bad taste, cruelty and a fucking good anti-hero.

I hope more studios are brave enough to create more films of this ilk, and that we get the Dredd sequels that this movie and its thoroughly adult audience deserves.