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Warner Home Video presents
Xerxes: There's much our cultures could share.
DVD ReviewComics creator Frank Miller has turned out some of the more consistently engaging and visually striking materials in recent years, with stark blacks and an idiosyncratic but powerful compositions that leap off the page. I remember that when I first heard that Miller was going to do an interpretation of the Spartans' last stand at the battle of Thermopylae, that it would be something to remember. That was certainly the case, as the resulting graphic novel featured a visual impact that translated a Sin City look to the ancient world. Director Zack Snyder has managed to turn Miller's graphic novel into an equally striking motion picture, which has proven to be a crowd-pleaser that maintains Miller's style into a cinematic vision even moreso than did Sin City.
The story is a familiar one that dates from Herodotus: in the days of the Greek city states, Persia, ruled by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), was a vast empire that was powerful and drew on massive resources in conquering much of the known world. After an insult to Persian ambassadors by the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler), Xerxes sends a gigantic army of many of his best troops to ravage Greece. Due to oracles that prevent him sending the army to stop the Persians, Leonidas selects 300 of his best troops and heads to the narrow pass of Thermopylae, where the huge numbers of the Persians are of little advantage. Even though the Spartans know that they are facing certain death, they offer cameraderie and work as a unit in the phalanx, holding the pass in memorable fashion against ever more monstrous and dangerous Persian troops.
Any complaints about historicity are covered over by a framing device that presents the central story as a tale being told by an old soldier around the campfire to inspire young Spartan troops to victory. And there are plenty of such lapses, from the presence of a rhinoceros at the battle to the presentation of Xerxes as a fetish-laden basketball player. While there is a small part for the supporting army of Greek volunteers, there's no mention of the critical part played by the Athenian navy, which makes sense within the context of the framing tale, since it is meant to emphasize Spartan glory and fighting prowess above everything else. There's a large element of homoeroticism and beefcake involved, with the Spartans fighting near naked, other than shield, helmet and cloak. Butler offers some amazingly chiseled abs, and in the extras it's made clear that they're not CG-enhanced.
The visuals are remarkably faithful to Miller's original, with numerous shots that mimic the freeze frames of the comic panels. One of the most notable is the sequence of the first wave of Persians being forced off a cliff, rendered in silhouette. The vision of Xerxes comes straight from Miller, as do the numerous weird monstrosities that appear throughout the picture. It's supported by a crush effect that blows out the highlights and turns shadows into darkness, boosting the contrast and draining much of the blue from the picture. The results have a great impact, and induce a slighty grainy quality that gives the combat sequences an almost newsreel reality, even while they are overwhelmingly choreographed. There are frequent references to balletic violence in cinema, but few can match 300 for presenting it as a graceful dance, moving from slow to fast motion to match the rhythms of the action. The battle techniques of the Spartans were essentially to pierce and hack the enemy to death, and the brutality of the combat comes across vividly with plenty of blood and gore lovingly rendered as they fly through the air in slo-mo. Of particular note is the sequence in which the phalanx first receives the charge of the Persians, which pulls one right into the battle, with the adrenaline pumping hard.
The acting is a rather stiff pseudo-Shakespearean style, with everyone declaiming from the bottom of their diaphragms nonstop. There's not much subtlety to the delivery for the most part. Part of the problem is that the dialogue (often lifted straight from Miller) isn't Shakespeare by a long shot; what plays just fine on the comics page can often sound ridiculous coming from actors' mouths. The one scene that is nicely underplayed is Leonidas' interview with the misshapen hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) who wants to fight with the Spartans. Kindly but firmly, Leonidas explains why he would prove to be the fatal weak point of the phalanx, which deftly permits exposition of the fighting style of the Spartans. But 300 isn't about acting or personal drama; it's about visceral action sequences and stunning visuals, and on those counts it succeeds admirably, keeping what could have been a tedious series of battles alive with varied interest.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Because of the highly stylized look of the picture, which is faithfully rendered, it's hard to complain about the way that this movie is presented in HD. While detail is very sharp and crisp throughout, without noticeable edge enhancement, there are some moments with disturbing artifacting. The most prominent of these is on closeups of Leonidas in his helmet; the lit half looks beautiful, but the darker half is alive with artifacts. There aren't a lot of these instances, but they are readily noticeable. The flip side includes the film in anamorphic widescreen format. The grain rendition is far poorer and difficult to watch after seeing the HD version, but it's also a crisp and detailed presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: English 5.1 tracks are presented in both DD+ and TrueHD. There's not a huge difference between the two, beyond the slightly broader soundstage of the TrueHD. Both have an excellent impact and the battle sequences offer nice deep bass effects. As one would expect, noise and hiss are nonexistent.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Trick 'r Treat, The Brave One
3 Deleted Scenes
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) Zack Snyder, with blue screen version of movie 2) director Zack Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad, director of photography Larry Fong
Many extras are also happily in HD. A set of three deleted scenes amplified Ephialtes' character a bit, and also shows one sequence that was too much over the top even for Snyder. The documentary 300 Spartans—Fact or Fiction (24m:34s) offers historians chatting about what's right with the movie and what's license taken for dramatic effect. If you were interested in hearing more about the practice of agage (the rigorous training of Spartan boys) or the ephors (grotesque and corrupt old men who control the oracles), this is where you want to be. It also includes Frank Miller discussing what elements he made up. An assortment of featurettes and webisodesoffer plenty of information regarding the making of the picture, cast and crew interviews, elements from history used to build characters, and the like. Several of these are in HD, though the dozen webisodes (totalling 38m:21s) are not. The featurette The Frank Miller Tapes (14m:42s) not only includes Miller chatting about his work, but his mentor, comics legend Neal Adams discussing it as well.
There's a game, Vengeance and Valor that allows you to play Leonidas and decide where and how to defend against the huge Persian forces. The interface is pretty unwieldy, though, and I ended up getting slaughtered in every battle. There are some online features as well that will require upgrade to firmware 2.3 on first generation players. These are again pretty meager: the ability to produce montages of favorite scenes and upload them to share with others, and the opportunity to buy wallpaper and ringtones with 300 themes for your mobile phone. Should you find yourself in need of a ringtone that features Xerxes saying "My divine power", or Leonidas shouting "No retreat, no surrender." or a variety of sound effects such as swords clashing, that is. The online aspect of HD DVD still hasn't been given a proper airing out, but the community aspect of the scene sharing is a start. One can also use the montage of favorite scenes feature without being online. But where's the trailer?
The standard DVD side offers several unrelated trailers, and one of the featurettes from the HD side is hidden as an easter egg. The main attraction here is a different commentary from Snyder, along with writer Kurt Johnstad and director of photography Larry Fong. This covers a lot of the same ground as the other extras, but it's handy if you only have access to a standard DVD player. There are, however, some long dead patches, unlike the HD commentary track.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsThe visuals and the action are striking, but the acting is a bit overwrought. The result is a little uneven but the entertainment value remains high for action fans. The extras include some fascinating materials that will prove interesting to fans of the movie.
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