Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Things I learned from 300

Coming late to this party, but I finally watched Zack Snyder's/Frank Miller's 300 on the weekend, and boy, did it stink.

Not to rain on the parade of thousands of fanboys who claim to enjoy it ironically, but that was one of the worst movies I've seen in years. And I watched The Rocker the same weekend. It also makes the achievement of Watchmen even more amazing; Watchmen isn't great but it's far from bad, and where it modifies the original story it usually does so carefully and in a not-moronic way.

Not 300. I felt like every addition to the Frank Miller comic went in the wrong direction. You have a comic that's already ludicrously stylized? Let's make the film adaptation even more stylized! There's basically no female roles in the comic? We'll put one in the move, so she can be raped! Some of the dialogue sounded cheesy and lame the first time around? A big spoonful of that please!

Seriously, 300 is one of those milestones in Frank Miller's career, the kind labeled "25 miles to Suckville." The guy's been going slowly insane for decades, and 300 was written at the point where he was just starting to move away from his Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns projects and beginning to walk the road that would take him to "I'm the goddamn Batman!" So it sort of works, but it's also loaded with the kind of stuff that would mark Miller for the rest of his career: enough testosterone to make a rhino explode, a style that is so extreme it constantly calls attention to itself, loads of blood, the valorization of violence, a lack of good characterization, and a big ol' Girls Not Allowed sign on the front door.

Politically, the movie was painful. I think calling it fascist is a little unfair. Even fascism, as a political philosophy, is more nuanced than 300. The movie was more a blend of unthinking nationalism wrapped up in some default American values. (Freedom be good!) Of course, those values are left undefined and unexamined, so we never question why the people fighting for freedom have a king, for example. Who orders them to cheerfully murder wounded soldiers while he eats an apple. Ha ha! It's funny because in any other movie that's how you'd be able to tell who the bad guy was!

Now, things I learned from watching 300:

• The ancient Persians were mostly African-American or east Asian in origin.

• "Phalanx" means everybody runs around slicing up people in slow-mo.

• Athenians were gay. Not the Spartans.

• The Persian army included the Uruk Hai and Sloth from The Goonies.

• In a related note, you can put ninjas in anything!

• Ancient Greek oracles were really just nude interpretative dancers.

• When going on a long mission, all you need to carry as a Spartan warrior are you weapons, shield, and red cloak. Food is not necessary, probably because you'll just murder and eat anyone you run across.

• Physically disabled people are inherently evil.

• Breastplates are for sissies.

• But not shaving your chest. A smooth, hairless torso, much like a Ken doll's, is super-manly.

• Gerard Butler has huge fucking teeth!

• Peasants don't really exist. Probably because if they ever showed up, the movie might have had to talk about how the Spartans ritually declared war on their peasants yearly, and murdered the troublesome ones as an initiation ritual for young men.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The seas are red because they're full of blood, get it?

Scott Lynch's follow up to The Lies of Locke Lamora is the almost as good Red Seas Under Red Skies. Two of the protagonists from The L of LL are back, Lamora himself and his good buddy Jean Tannen. They've relocated to a new city, two years after the bloody denoument of the last book, and are working a long, long con.

The first half of the book is split between the con itself – they're trying some complicated theft/swindle targeting the richest and most dangerous casino owner and gangster in town – and the back story of how they got there. At the end of Locke Lamora, the title character was half dead and Jean wasn't in much better shape. Lynch shows Lamora diving into a big pool of self pity, with Jean forced to repeatedly fish him out. Lamora puts himself back together slowly (in the movie version, there'll be a montage of him re-learning card tricks) until he's ready to take on the big con.

Just as the con gets going, however, it's derailed. The military dictator of their new home town decides to press the two Gentlemen Bastards into service. He's on the verge of a civil war with the town's wealthy merchants. He wants a fake pirate scare, so he has Locke and Jean given a crash course in seamanship and sent out with a crew. They'll ravage the annoying merchants and give the dictator the excuse to make his army and navy even bigger.

Then there are mutinies, battles at sea, numerous assassination attempts, new love, betrayal, more sea battles, more betrayal, and Jean and Locke are squeezed tight between so many clashing factions they're almost squished. The book concludes with an orgy of finales – to the con, the pirate wars, and the fates of half a dozen characters.

On a page to page level, the book is almost as good as LoLL. Locke and Jean are still compelling characters, and the pirates, casino owners, various henchmen and others are colourfully drawn. The new city – I still can't remember the damn place's name – just isn't as lively or as fully realized as Camorr, however. The pirate ships prove a better setting.

My key complaints with the book are twofold. First, the flashback structure doesn't work as well here as it did in The Lies of Locke Lamora. In that book, we were learning about the education and allegiances of the Gentlemen Bastards as we watched them doing their job in the present day. In Red Seas, an enormous amount of time is spent in the first few flashbacks on Locke being miserable, but we already know he gets over this in time to jump into the big con game. It all feels too drawn out, and it hurts the book's forward momentum. Second, the grumbling and personality conflicts between Locke and Jean feel a bit contrived. They seem to constantly be offending, disappointing or annoying one another. It never amounts to anything, though. There just isn't enough conflict to tear the duo apart.

Oh, and yet again the love of Locke's life is referred to, but does not appear. Two books running is a bit much to drag out such a key plot point.

Still, it's very deserving of the label swashbuckling. Fun characters, a fun world, and a fun adventure. If you liked the first book, by all means read it and move on to this one.