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300
Starring Gerard Butler and Lena Headey and Directed by Zack Snyder
Released by Warner Bros.

Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s “unfilmable” graphic novel makes it to the silver screen thanks to Zack Snyder’s resilience and obstinacy, and the results are a mixed, but entertaining, bag.

The story of the Battle of Thermopylae remains one of the greatest military stands in the history of this planet, and the details are unquestionable: thanks to the terrain and their superior fighting skill, 300 Spartan soldiers were able to hold off thousands of invading Persian soldiers long enough for the rest of Greece to get itself together and band together to repel Xerxes and his empire. King Leonidas of Sparta defied his own laws and took those men to fight and die, and ultimately, his sacrifice led the way for Greece to remain free. The tale is an inspirational one, and is one to never be forgotten. But does it make for a good movie?

Therein lies the true question. Undoubtedly, Snyder has produced a beautiful piece of art; everything but the people in 300 is CGI, including the massive quantities of blood that splatter the screen freely throughout the massive battles. This gives the entire film a sense of hyper-reality, which engages the eye brilliantly. But it also puts up blocks to gaining any sort of emotional investment in the proceedings. And that’s 300’s failing on the whole: there is no real narrative at play in the film. 300 men go off to fight to the last and succeed in doing so. The end. Not really a story there.

Snyder and his writers add a subplot with Leonidas’ wife Gorgo battling a corrupt politician in order to try and convince the ruling body to send the army to her husband’s aid, but ultimately, the through-line is flat. So from the angle, 300 isn’t a good film, because the story never gains traction.

But damn, do the filmmakers pull out every stop in order to make you ignore that problem. As I said above, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on the screen since Jet Li’s HERO. The action sequences are startling, the people on screen (male and female) breathtaking… 300 is a feast. Butler and Headey are fine in their roles, and you can see why Butler became a man in demand after the film’s opening weekend. In the end, despite its failings, 300 is a rousing entertainment, but one that may have been sorely limited by its source material. Still, it’s worth a watch, and definitely one to see on the large screen where your eyes can take in all the candy.

Marc Mason

TRAIN MAN (DENSHA OTOKO)
Available from Viz Media

If it weren’t a true story, you might not ever believe the events in TRAIN MAN. But this quiet, romantic little film is indeed a recounting of real life events, and despite a few odd creative choices, it delivers the charm and the laughs in healthy amounts, and is a very satisfying viewing experience.
 
The story of the Train Man took Japan by storm a few years ago, and has been told in a number of formats; novel, television, at least three different mangas, and feature film. Regardless of how the story got out, though, the facts and foundations are consistent. A young computer engineer, leading a quiet life that revolves around his life of manga, anime, and other geek pursuits, changes his life forever when he finds a bit of courage in himself on the way home from a shopping trip one evening. A drunken man in the train car begins harassing female passengers, and as he draws in on a young woman reading a book across the aisle, the younger man stands up and intervenes to save her.

Train Man’s only true social support in life comes from the denizens of an internet bulletin board. When a thank you gift of Hermes teacups arrives with her phone number on the package, the group begins the slow and deliberate process of helping the young man make over his life, gain some self-confidence, and begin to pursue the woman of his dreams. He’s an Eliza Doolittle for the net generation, and instead of a proper gentleman for an advisor, he has a crew of faceless, anonymous voices of both genders working to shape him up.

The film version stars Takayuki Yamada as Train Man, and he turns in an excellent performance, committing fully to inhabit the quiet, stammering, and socially inept computer nerd. The only issue with Yamada-san is his looks; even in the beginning, pre-makeover, he’s obviously a very handsome man, and not at all the type you’d expect to be a virginal recluse into his twenties. Miki Nakatoni plays the young woman that the internet group coins “Hermess” thanks to her choice in gifts, and she’s terrific as the more self-assured of the pair. She mixes reserve and resolve very delicately as Train Man struggles to try and adapt to being a social being, and you never once question why he fell in love with her.

But TRAIN MAN belongs primarily to director Shosuke Murakami. Faced with telling a story where the audience knows the outcome, he focuses on making the film an inventive and visually arresting piece. The internet chattering plays out on ceilings, bulletin boards, and other bits of the surroundings, and the cities are filmed in spectacular neon glory. It’s easy to forget how lovely Japan is when you’re watching miniature versions being destroyed by kaiju, but Murakami offers up reminder after reminder. In one stunning sequence at the top of act three, he visualizes the internet as two halves of the train station, with Train Man on one side of the tracks and the group on the other. The metaphor is both striking and apt, and the way the sequence is lit and filmed is terrific, matching pain with alienation, with relief so close and yet so far away. Murakami’s direction elevates TRAIN MAN from being more than a cute romance between two shy people and turns it into a love letter to the world’s lost and lonely, offering up a glimpse of what hope really looks like.

Marc Mason

THE LOOKING GLASS WARS SOUNDTRACK
Performed by Various
Available From Automatic Records

You have to give author/producer Frank Beddor credit: the man knows how to cross-promote material. His novel, THE LOOKING GLASS WARS, came out in the U.K. last year, and in anticipation of the U.S. release, he put together a comicbook miniseries focusing on one of the characters that shipped from Image Comics. Now, he’s worked with a number of bands to put together a soundtrack meant to complement the novel, both thematically and as background sound for the reader while they page through the book.

The biggest risk Beddor was facing when putting together this project had to be the potential for it to turn out horribly cheesy. Finding the right bands and right songs was a must; a disc full of crappy-sounding John Tesh-ish music would have been a nightmare. But while the album does get off to a bit of a soft electronica start, it quickly kicks into gear. Singers like Julianna Raye offer knockout songs that evoke the best of artists like Natalie Merchant and 10000 Maniacs, and then alt-rock Hypnogaja swoops in behind them to offer solid work that reminds the ear of bands like My Chemical Romance. So the track listing does an excellent job of avoiding obvious pitfalls.

There aren’t a lot of extra frills, though Beddor does provide a synopsis of his world in the liner notes that matches up the songs with their portion of the plot, but they don’t really turn out to be necessary. Over the past few years, there have been a few comics that have tried this approach, adding a music soundtrack (Brian Wood’s POUNDED comes to mind, as does Tracker’s soundtrack to Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS) but none of them has quite clicked with the original material the way this one does. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy it, and that makes a huge difference.

Marc Mason

STUDENTS OF THE UNUSUAL FILM FESTIVAL
Available via Students of the Unusual

A couple of months ago, over in the indies section, I reviewed the retailer preview of the most recent issue of STUDENTS OF THE UNUSUAL. What made that book a bit different than most that hit the shelves were the plans that Terry Cronin and friends had in store for that issue: they had sponsored a film festival, with a $500 prize, for entrants to adapt stories from the comic, and the top films would be put on DVD and that DVD was to be included in the final comic. However, at the time the retailer preview came out, the DVD wasn’t yet ready for review.

Times change. The DVD contains eight short films, plus some extras, and overall the results are pretty decent. Individually, the winning film was an animated version of the comic book’s best story, a “Behind the Music” spoof involving Recalcitrant Jones and the Deadbeats, the band made up of Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Lawrence Welk. The filmmakers kept the stylized look of the comics, and they also did a nice job of keeping the sharp humor intact. (When the narrator gets around to noting that even the dead get groupies, he notes that Joplin didn’t because “she was so ugly even Madonna wouldn’t touch her”.) It’s a solid piece of work, and much deserving of the prize.

Other highlights include “Milk Maids”, “Entombed”, and “Tattooed Love”, all of which are well-produced and polished productions. But on the flip side, it also causes you to pose questions; out of the eight films, two or three were nowhere near the quality of the rest, and you wonder why the SOTU crew included them on the disc. In fact, one film actually has an “author’s note” after it explaining why he wound up completely changing the storyline for his adaptation, putting something on film that had no resemblance to the original tale. It just feels like it would have been judicious to shrink down the results and tighten the product before it went to shelves.

In the end, though, I think that the DVD and the film contest itself did exactly what it was supposed to. The creative team was able to publicize their book, and for less than the cost of a full-page PREVIEWS ad if I remember correctly, and they were able to expand the reach of the book in doing so. They can put the DVD in stores, use it for online promos, point to it in a year and hold another contest that will only draw stronger competitors trying to beat these pieces… you name it. More indy books should try stuff like this, particularly as Diamond gets stingier and stingier in what it will carry. A filmmaking contest gets other people to do the work for you, and that makes Terry Cronin and company pretty smart, doesn’t it?

Marc Mason

THE BATMAN: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON
Available From Warner Video

When Warner Brothers announced a new Batman animated series a couple of years ago, I was fairly dubious about its prospects. The previous series of Batman cartoons, from the Timm/Dini team, ranked as one of the three best of its kind ever produced. Any new series was going to be launching out of the prior show’s shadow and was likely to suffer in comparison. And I was right; season one, when I sampled it, was pretty weak. But shows grow when given the chance, and the time has come to evaluate the show again as the second season arrives for home entertainment viewing.

The results? A mixed bag. THE BATMAN is definitely an improved show in these thirteen episodes, and there is some terrific material here. But there are also some issues that haven’t been surmounted and are holding the show back.

Let’s start with the good. One thing THE BATMAN has added to the character’s mythos is Detective Ellen Yin of the Gotham City Police Department. This series takes place early in Batman’s career, and he’s still considered persona non grata by the current Chief (named Rojas; Gordon is Commissioner, but he doesn’t put in an appearance until the season finale). Yin has become Batman’s quiet, inside ally, and as played by the excellent Ming-Na, she’s sharp, intelligent, brave, and takes no crap from anyone. Joining Yin in the positive column is the series’ portrayal of The Penguin. He’s a crafty, formidable opponent, and easily my preference for any take on the character to date. Other good stuff includes the introduction of the Riddler, a very different take from the comicbook version, but one that really works as a modern version of the character.

On the flip side, Batman himself still isn’t a compelling character through most of the series. He never quite seems to command the screen, and voice actor Rino Romano doesn’t give him any gravity. Batman also tends to get beaten up and around much more than he should, and while part of that could be attributed to his youth at this part of the chronology, it still makes him come off as, well, wimpy. It also makes the villains and the supporting cast far more interesting to watch, which was the greatest flaw in the Burton/Schumacher films. Some of the character re-designs still nag at the eye, as well; Catwoman is a terrific character on the show, but her costume, with the giant ears, is god awful, and it takes away from how seriously you can take her as a thief.

This second season really finds itself and gets some momentum going right around the eighth of thirteen episodes. It starts with the teaming of Mr. Freeze and Firefly, moves through a fantastic episode that finds the Joker deciding that, if he can’t beat Batman, he’ll become him, and hits a rousing conclusion wherein Riddler, Penguin, and Joker team together to take Batman down once and for all. Totaling two full hours, the final six episodes make for a fun little Bat-movie and are good enough for me to recommend purchasing the set.

Marc Mason


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