Spartans, ripped and ready for battle (Warner Bros. Pictures)
300 Long ago there reigned a clan of Speedo-wearing, militaristic psychopaths called the Spartans. They lived beneath a copper-colored sky, on a copper-colored land, amid copper-colored fields, in copper-colored homes made from copper-colored stone. Legend has it they would outline their copper-colored pecs and abs with ash to enhance their manly buffness, and yet these were men of action and honor, not philosophers and boy lovers like their namby-pamby rivals the Athenians. Such machismo was memorialized by Frank Miller in 300, his graphic-novel retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which the titular quantity of Spartan studs fended off a billion gazillion Persian invaders. Marshaling the full resources of high-end computer imaging and the full capacities of hardcore fan-boy nerditude, writer-director Zack Snyder (he of the unexpectedly decent Dawn of the Dead remake) has now brought Millers book to life. Slathering pancake makeup on its actors, then pasting them into digital backgrounds, 300 takes the synthetic blockbuster one step closer to total animation; its bland, weightless monochromatics make Sin City look like the grungiest neo-realism. Its a ponderous, plodding, visually dull picture that escapes inertia only in certain action scenes, of which there are enough to satisfy the action-buff blood lust the film seeks to aggravate and sate. Here and there, Snyder makes good use of the lesson of The Matrix, slowing the slices, dices and decapitations to a digitally calibrated crawl, the better to relish all 360 degrees of their stupendous ass-kickery. Tolerate the lobotomized dialogue and some half-assed political intrigues and youll find a good 10 minutes of 300 worth posting on YouTube. Delicacies of dismemberment aside, 300 is notable for its outrageous sexual confusion. At first glance, the terms couldnt be clearer: macho white guys vs. effeminate Orientals. Yet aside from the fact that the Spartans come across as pinched, pinheaded gym bunnies, its their flesh the movie worships. At once homophobic and homoerotic, 300 is finally, and hilariously, just hysterical. (Citywide) (Nathan Lee)
EAST OF HAVANA Ive had a tough life, says Magyori, a female musician and rapper featured in East of Havana, a vital look at Cubas tenaciously grass-roots hip-hop scene. And my music, my lyrics, my friends, my personality: Theyre all tough. Co-directors Jauretsi Saizabitoria and Emilia Menocal were both born of Cuban parents but raised in the United States, and they share the desire to connect with the mythology and mystery gilding that toughness (often referred to as Cubaneo, meaning the struggle of Cuban life), as well as a curiosity about a rare sociocultural movement flourishing on Castros watch. Following Magyori and fellow rappers as they prepare for an international hip-hop festival taking place in Havana in 2004, East of Havana sets their individual stories against the bitter, resilient landscape of Cubas political history. For the youth in the film, music doesnt just have a purpose, it is a purpose, and the artists find in hip-hop a mental freedom, a lyrical and ideological purity that recalls American hip-hop before it crusted over with diamonds and demagogues. (Grande 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)
PICK INTO GREAT SILENCE Apart from their well-tended Web site, the French Carthusian monks in German director Philip Grönings fascinating documentary live lives largely unmodified by the 11 centuries that have passed since their order was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne. Though not as silent as Trappists, they speak very little and aside from regular Gregorian chants, a weekly communal meal, a Monday-morning hike where they twitter like birds and whoop with joy while sliding down a snowy hill eat and pray alone in bare cells. Built around a premise antithetical to our over-informed, over-opinionated world, the monks days may be austere, but theyre also profoundly sensual. Everything this self-sufficient community does from preparing food and sewing garments to chopping wood and evaluating novices is a sacred ritual offered to God. Their silence is full to the brim with incidental sound that functions as both score and narration in this hyper-empathic film, and counterpoints the brief cuts away to gaggles of assembled tourists or a plane flying overhead. Framed in doorways or followed around by Gröning, who lived with them for months and shot the film without help, the monks (not all of whom were thrilled by his presence) go about their unchanging business like serene children. Gröning makes us fully feel the rhythms of their lives, but for the same reasons that most of us couldnt or wouldnt last in such a stripped-down environment, the movie, at just shy of three hours, starts to feel oppressive after two. At which point the part of me that longed to move in and rest was in full combat with the devil within who itched to go shopping. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor) See film feature
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MAXED OUT Goddamn if we didnt have the bejesus freaked out of us after 9/11, but, hey, President Bush knew just what to say to reassure the citizenry: Travel, go shopping, take the kids to Disneyland. Our way of life may have been under attack, but our credit rating was strong, and we were called on to fight back not with guns but funds, brandishing our credit cards in the face of the heathens. According to James Scurlock, it was this memorable moment of late-capitalist dementia that provoked him to film Maxed Out, a documentary concerned with predatory lending and the American debt crisis, and to write a book of the same name. Surveying the culture of debt, Maxed Out the book skims over government deregulation of the banking industry, the proliferation of bottom-feeding debt collectors, and the real estate industry, illustrating how the latter functions as a debt-delivery mechanism. Its a wiser investment than a ticket bought to the documentary, a slapdash piece of work totally indebted to secondhand rhetorical strategies (the 50s educational film; glib Bush-bashing) and threadbare indignation. (Sunset 5) (Nathan Lee)
NISHABD Writer-director Ram Gopal Varmas scandalously anticipated new film was preceded by shrewd tactical whispers to the effect that it was a Bollywood remake of Lolita, with the 64-year-old masculine icon Amitabh Bachchan (think Eastwood or Newman) becoming enamored of a slinky 18-year-old. But Nishabd (The Silence) turns out to be an undeniably stylish, if also dizzyingly uneven, mixed bag, deeply affecting one minute and ludicrous the next; the fetishistic slow-motion shots of ingénue Jiah Khan cooling herself with a garden hose would not be out of place on a Playboy DVD. The sleek Khan is certainly a von Sternbergworthy object of obsession, but Varma is locked into presenting her as an emblem of free-spirited modern youth, which for him seems to be synonymous with callow and rude and almost pathologically self-absorbed. For Jiah, Bachchans solid and self-contained Vijay is a prize shes fixed on with a whim of iron, and if Varma had pushed her manipulations a bit further, the movie would be more interesting. In fact, our interest picks up considerably after the halfway point, when the movie teeters on turning into a thriller with the arrival of Jiahs bouncy young college boyfriend, who hides out on the premises to surprise her unbeknownst to anyone but Vijay. No Hitchcock movie ever had a better setup for a stalk-and-kill finale, but Varma is after a bigger, more slippery fish the fear of aging and death that draws the old man to the young girl. Varmas honesty and seriousness are impressive, if not his showmanship. (Naz 8) (David Chute)
THE ULTIMATE GIFT In the latest release from the faith-based division of 20th Century Fox, an oil-rich billionaire (James Garner) kicks the bucket and leaves a special bequest for his trust-fund-suckling grandson (Drew Fuller) a gauntlet of hard work and hardship designed to give the boy an appreciation for the true value of a greenback. Among the tasks: toughing it out as a Texas ranch hand; living as a homeless person; and showing some genuine compassion for a debt-addled single mom (Ali Hillis) and her leukemia-stricken daughter (Abigail Breslin). If he succeeds, the ultimate gift of the movies title will be his which, in case you havent figured it out, is one of those things you cant buy with a MasterCard. Directed with accomplished impersonality by Michael O. Sajbel (One Night With the King), The Ultimate Gift means well and has a few surprises in store this is not a movie you expect to climax in a tense jungle standoff with Ecuadorian drug runners but too often feels like yet another self-flagellating Hollywood exercise about the corrosive power of wealth and the restorative benefits of getting down with the real soul people. Its The Pursuit of Happyness made from the ivory tower looking down, instead of from the street looking up. (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)