Review: 300 (dir. by Zack Snyder)

I will get it out of the way and say that this was not and was not meant to be a historically accurate depiction of Ancient Greece. It was never meant to be even when it was still just an Eisner-Award winning graphic novel from the mind of iconic graphic novelist and artist Frank Miller. With that out of the way I was able to watch and enjoy Zack Snyder’s film adaptation on its own terms without the criticism of historical accuracies looming dangerously over my head. 300 deserves the label of being an event film. From start to finish, Snyder’s film practically screams blockbuster and popcorn and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Frank Miller’s 300 was at its time an interesting depiction of one of history’s greatest military last stands. Miller already known for hyperstylizing the look and feel of the noir genre with his Sin City graphic novels, takes the same approach with his depiction of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans taking a final last stand against Persian God-King Xerxes at a narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae (literally meaning Hot Gates in Greek). Zack Snyder took this graphic novel and painstakingly stayed true to the visuals Miller and his colorist wife, Lynn Varley put on paper. Looking back at my memory of some of the panels and images from the graphic novel. Snyder and his crew of art directors, cinematographers and CGI-artists were successful in translating almost every page of the graphic novel onto the screen.

Like Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Miller’s Sin City, Zack Snyder’s 300 pretty much brings the graphic novel to moving life. This means he stuck to the source material quite literally which limits his own take on the graphic novel. Like Rodriguez, Snyder doesn’t really put his own signature stamp as a director to the film. It’s not too much of criticis since he does a great job of translating Miller’s work onto film, but one wonders what sort of personal touches he could’ve added to the finished look that wasn’t lifted from Miller’s style and whether it would’ve changed the overlook look and feel of the film.

The story is quite simple and just takes the basic summary of the historical event itself. Spartan King Leonidas (played with visceral gusto and machismo by Scottish thespian Gerard Butler) makes a decision to go to war and confront the encroaching and fast approaching massive Persian Army led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) intent on conquering the Hellenic city-states of the Greek Peninsula. Persian ambassadors ride forth to demand oaths of fealty from those city-states ahead of the army’s path. Sparta is one such city-state, but different from the rest of its Hellenic brethrens. Sparta has gone down in history as a word synonymous with unbending dedication to a strict, ascetic warrior code. Warfare and battle were what Spartans were born and trained to do from an early age. Weakness and physical imperfections weeded out from the time of birth (the film explains just what happens to male newborns with physical imperfections and deformities). The answer Leonidas gives the Persian delegation could be seen as somewhat extreme, but not contrary to his nation’s warrior-culture of never surrendering and seeing death in battle the greatest glory for a Spartan to achieve. From this sequence right up to the end of the film we get to see just how much of a warrior culture the Spartans were in extreme detail.

It’s during the prolonged battle scenes between Leonidas’ Spartans and Xerxes army which will have everyone chomping at the bit. If you have to see this film for any particular reason outside of watching superbly-trained underdogs slaughtering and endless supply of enemy troops then you will most likely be disappointed by the slower scenes away from Thermopylae. Indeed, this film an its original source material would’ve worked even better without the extra filler Snyder and his writers added to give the film more depth. I’m all for more emotional depth and characterization in my films but when a movie is all about a bloody and heroic last stand of a few against the many, scenes which slow the story down does more to break the rhythm and tone of a film than add to it. Othe than a deeper understanding of the kind of partnership Leonidas had with Gorgo, his Spartan Queen, most of the subplots added by Snyder and his writers could easily have been left out and still ge a kick ass action epic.

It’s the action scenes which reall stand out visually. Some people might see the style tricks of speed ramping certain action sequences then slowing it down considerably to show the minute detail of the battle scene as being to gimmicky, but I would disagree and say it actually gives the movie a mythical quality in its storytelling. One thing I have to say about Zack Snyder as a director (his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead better than what detractors have made it out to be) is that he knows how to film action and with special mention to bloody and gory action. He makes these scenes of dismemberments, decapitations, and disembowlments look like a piece of performance art.

These scenes of carnage would be considered extremely gratuitious if it didn’t look so made up good. Even the way the blood flows, spurts and splashes look like something Jackson Pollock would take interest in. The speed up and slow down of the sequences also gives the fight scenes a certain rhythm that once an audience picks up on will follow it through to the end. This is why the scenes back in Sparta with a duplicitous politician and his powerplay to assume control and power seem such a downer instead of enhancing the sacrifice of Leonidas and his men. Those scenes just feel tacked on and completely superfluous. Luckily, there’s not enough of them to slow down the frantic pace developed by the battle itself.

The performances by all actors involved really doesn’t require too much criticism or reflection over. Gerard Butler does a great and convincing job as the Spartan King and his conviction in confronting Xerxes and his army with so few seem very believable. It’s not a star-making performance but it does show that Butler can add a bit of gravitas to a character and role so basic in characterization. Lena Hedley is radiant as his partner and Queen. Despite the weird sounding name of Gorgo, Hedley plays the strong-minded and equally influential wife to Butler’s Leonidas. It’s only her scenes back in Sparta as she tries to rally her people to support their king which keeps these slower sequences from fully pulling down the film. The performances were good enough to keep the acting in the film from becoming too campy or too serious. It’s an action film and with enough action going on in the movie I could forgive the writers (both Miller and the screenwriters) from scrimping on character build up.

All in all, Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 succeeds in bringing the book to moving life. Throughout the run of the film it was hard not to get lost in the beautiful visuals. Whether it was the muted color pallette which puts most of the scenes in an almost sepia-tone look to over-emphasizing certain colors to set a certain mood. From oversaturation of reds in one sequence to one where everything seem to be tinted with the many shades of blues at night. This is what 300 will be best remembered for. It’s technical use of CGI to paint the environment in unrealistic but beautiful ways which gives the scenes a lyrical and mythical look to them once the actors were superimposed over them. The film really was a painting come to life and it shows once again how computer and digital filmmaking technology have now afforded directors in making what used to be impossible technically to something that could be done with the limit being the artist’s imagination.

This film will not win many acting, directing and even screenwriting awards (which it didn’t once award season rolled around), but it doesn’t have to for people to enjoy it. It will entertain and pull its audience into a living and modern retelling of a legend. Whether all that happened on the screen was exactly as it happened in 480 B.C. doesn’t matter. What it does show is that through retelling down the years even all the embellishments added to the story of Leonidas and his men doesn’t diminish the fact that what they did and accomplished was how legendary heroes were made and remembered.

Review: Marvel Zombies (by Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips)

When Marvel Zombies was first announced I had been away from reading the superhero titles from DC and Marvel. I’d gone fully into non-superhero titles. One such title is Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Kirkman finally created a story which really tapped into what Romero was talking about in his Living Dead films. Kirkman’s zombie series continued where the film end credits began. To suddenly find out that Kirkman was to pen a “What If…?” style miniseries for Marvel telling the tale of what would happen if the Marvel Universe (well on of its alternates at least) and all its heroes and supervillains had suddenly all turned into flesh-eating zombies was great news indeed.

Marvel Zombies continues where the Ultimates Fantastic Four “Crossover” story-arc left off (story-arc where we’re introduced to the Marvel Zombies alternate universe). The Ultimates Fantastic Four has made it back safely to their Ultimates reality through the assistance of an unzombified Magneto. In the very first pages of Marvel Zombies we find Magneto on the run from those superheroes and villains turned zombies gunning for him. With these super-powered zombies having devoured the planet’s population within days they’re now set to hunting down, and at times, fighting with each other for the last few remaining people left on Earth for them to feed their hunger.

This being titled Marvel Zombies and not Magneto should give a hint as to the fate of the Master of Magnetism. No, this book deals with how the Marvel Zombies solve through their problem of not having anymore people to eat. It’s a good thing that in this reality Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer, have decided it was time to add Earth to the Devourer of Worlds’ menu. Unbeknownst to the Silver Surfer and Galactus, a planet they once thought to be teeming with life and energy to be consumned has become a death world where only the zombified Marvel heroes and villains remain.

The scenes once the Surfer and Galactus arrive were both action-packed and also full of some very dark humor. It was very difficult trying to root for anyone since in the end everyone left in the story were the “bad guys” but where the Surfer and Galactus were the serious villains in the story the Marvel Zombies themselves were funny enough in their need to take down Galactus and his Herald to feast on. The aftermath of the battle between the remaining Marvel zombies and Galactus makes for a great twist and also makes sense in a darkly humorous and wicked way.

Kirkman doesn’t dwell too much on the nature of the zombie plague’s effect on people’s humanity and feelings. He goes all-out to tell a fun, rip-roaring story. It shows in that there’s a little less depth in the book’s story than in Kirkman’s Walking Dead series, but what the story lacks in dramatic depth was made up for in some very funny and witty dialogue between the zombies themselves. The artwork by Sean Phillips (been a fan of his style since his work on Ed Brubaker’s Sleeper) complimented well with Kirkman’s zombie writing. I also like the fact that this graphic novel collected all the Marvel Zombies issue covers (both first and later reprintings) by renowned artist Arthur Suydam. His zombified alternate covers of classic Marvel issue covers was something of a great treat for comic book fans everywhere.

So, while Marvel Zombies doesn’t rise to the dramatic depths of The Walking Dead what it does do is tell a fun story of zombies versus Cosmic beings with plenty of flesheating and bloody good action. I’m glad that as great as Marvel Zombies was I’m even gladder that Marvel decided to re-visit this oft-kilter universe with some follow-up miniseries like Marvel Zombies vs The Army of Darkness and Marvel Zombies Volumes 2 thru 5.

Review: The Walking Dead Volume 13 (by Robert Kirkman)

It’s been almost a month since the final episode of the first season for the tv series adaptation of this comic book aired on AMC. The Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd produced series became a major hit not just for the channel but also for everyone involved. While the adaptation deviated from the comic’s path at times in the end it helped established the post-apocalyptic world creator Robert Kirkman had been working five years to create. This is a world that is still on-going and, just weeks earlier, released the thirteenth volume of collected issues 73 thru to 78.

The 13th volume is aptly titled, Too Far Gone, as it continues where the previous trade paperback left off and that’s Rick and his group of survivors trying to settle in the safe, walled community in Alexandria, VA. This wasn’t the respite Rick and his group were hoping for, but it is as close to one as they’ll get as their original destination of Washington, DC resembles much of everything else they’ve seen and that’s unsafe devastation.

As Rick gradually gets used to going back as a lawman for the community everyone else do their part in doing the new jobs handpicked for them by the community’s leader Douglas. Through the first half of the volume we see through the point of view of certain character that this safe haven they’ve joined has it’s fair share of secrets and that not everything was as stable as they’ve been led to believe. While some of the revelations the reader will read as the volume unfolds doesn’t bring back images of Woodbury and The Governor, they do show that the underbelly of the Alexandria community is just as rotten but in other ways.

The title of the volume is in regards to Rick as a character and to a small degree the rest of his group. Here they are in a safe place with other survivors who just want to try and get back to living life the way it used to be. The paranoia and mistrust Rick has built within himself after the long journey from his hospital bed to this place has begun to chip away at not just his sanity but his humanity as well. He hasn’t turned the corner to become another Governor, but his actions in regards to trying to safeguard their new found safety does show that Rick and some in his group do not trust all the smiles and well-wishes thrown their way.

Rick knows that as safe as they all might seem now it doesn’t take much for all of it to come crashing down. It’s this looming threat that forces Rick to behave in ways which does have people question if he’s lost it and has he become a danger not just to their new benefactors but to his own people as well. The answer to this question wasn’t clear and remains, like all of Kirkman’s answer to certain moral question throughout the series, ambiguous and left up to the reader to decide if what Rick has done for the safety of his son and the others keep him in the role of hero or villain.

The volume ends in relatively safe conditions, but clues of an ominous consequence at the solution to some of the community’s outside problems may just bring a much bigger one in the next volume.

For those who are fans of the comic book the last two volumes has been slower affairs with quick bursts of action and horror. Like volume 6 and 7 previously, this relative calm before the storm may just bring about another major change to the roster of characters we’ve been following since the battle at the prison. Will we see another major kill-off of characters? Only Kirkman can answer that and it will be another 4-5 months before the next volume hits the streets. It will be a long wait indeed.


Review: The Walking Dead Volume 12 (by Robert Kirkman)

[Some Spoilers Within]

Tonight marks the premiere of Robert Kirkman’s widely-acclaimed and fan favorite zombie comic book series aptly titled The Walking Dead. The series has preeminent filmmaker Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) and genre-veteran producer Gale Anne Hurd producing the adaptation for AMC. So, it’s with the 12th volume in the collected series that I welcome the tv series.

“Life Among Them” sees Rick and his group of survivors (now less three of its original members and picking up a new one along the way in the previous volume) finally finding a semblance of a safe haven after the travails they endured at the hands of “The Hunters”. It has been a long and deadly journey for Rick and his people. The fact that the promise of a working government they had been moving towards was actually a lie from one of the new members wasn’t too much of a surprise to loyal readers of the comic. This is a group which has had its hopes dashed bloodily over and over that any good news they see as too good to be true.

This goes for the sudden arrival of a scout party from a walled-off community which promises the group safe haven with no questions asked. Rick, who has gone through such promises from a previous safe community, sees this offer with some suspicion and this brings forth another aspect of Rick’s personality which has changed from issue 1 to this volume. He has become paranoid and mistrustful of those not in his group and offers of safety and a respite from the grueling travels of the road he sees with suspicions eyes. But they accept this invitation and find out that this safe haven couldn’t be any different from Woodbury.

What they see inside the fortified walls could pass off as a slice of their former lives. A suburban-like community where people safely walk the streets at night and their kids play ball in the yards and streets without hints of danger. Leading this community is a former Congressman who had taken the stole of leadership and keep the haven running smoothly. All he asks of Rick and his people is that they contribute in some way to help continue the community’s expansion in some way. Rick returns to what he did before the fall of civilization and patrols the streets as the town’s constable. Michonne thinks it is now safe for her to put away her sword. Even Andrea has caught the eyes of more than one of the town’s many single men. Even Abraham has pitched in to become part of the work detail whose job is to go out and find building supplies to help strengthen and expand the walls.

All seems to be working as it should with everyone safe. The first sign that not all is what it seems is the mention of a name. A person who helped organized the building of the walls, but who seems to have become “HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED” to everyone Rick and his group meets inside the haven. The town’s leader also seems to hold secrets of his own. Rick senses the dark undercurrents permeating the town’s vibe and in a sequence right at the end of the volume we see just how damaged Rick has become since we first meet him in issue 1.

While the volume doesn’t go heavy on the zombie action it does a great job in setting up what could be another major story-arc coming in the subsequent volumes. Will Rick and his people learn the secrets the town has been keeping from them? Will Rick become what he despises the most in trying to keep his son and his group safe from the dangers of the outside and what he perceives as dangers inside as well? This volume is almost the calm before another shitstorm about to hit the group and this time will the butcher’s bill be as large as the one which was tallied in the end of the 8th volume.

Review: The Walking Dead Volume 11 (by Robert Kirkman)

[Some Spoilers Within]

There’s always been one constant in Robert Kirkman’s award-winning and fan favorite comic book series for Image Comics. The Walking Dead is not all about the zombies which dominate the background and always present an ever-looming danger to the survivors. No, the series has always been about the characters of the survivors and how they’ve had to cope with the apocalyptic setting that’s turned their world upside down. While the ever-present danger of the zombies have inflicted on Rick Grimes and his band of survivors their fair share of casualties it always falls to other human survivors to take the greatest toll on everyone.

Volume 11 of The Walking Dead has been titled “Fear the Hunters” and that is quite an apt title to the story-arc which dominates this volume. Collecting issues 61 thru 66, this volume brings the danger of other humans to the forefront. We’ve spent the last two volumes dealing with the ramifications and after-effects of the Governor’s attack on the prison and the subsequent fleeing of Rick and those who remain in his group. We’ve seen how the loss in life has finally taken enough of a toll on Rick that it’s started to manifest itself and he’s not sure how to deal with it. His son Carl has also shown that he’s had to grow up fast in this new world. While it’s definitely shown him to be a hardened survivor it has also shown how humanity and innocence has  no place in this new world. Either one grew up fast to deal with the problem or become victim to it. Carl has chosen to be the former even if it means he’s trodding down a dark path his own father has tried to shield him from.

“Fear the Hunters” will end up taking several more original members from Rick’s group. All three deaths had a sense of inevitability to them but now they died still doesn’t diminish the shock of Kirkman once again proving that no one’s truly safe. The fact that Carl becoming used to all the violence around him was directly responsible for one of the deaths remains one of the most shocking sequences in a series full of them. It definitely brings up a possibility that father and son may one day come at crossroads when something will put them at odds with each other.

The one other thing about this volume which brings the darker side of humanity to the forefront is the aforementioned “Hunters” themselves. A band of human survivors whose will to survive has taken them past the precipice of whatever human decency they had left and brought them to a place which has made them worse than the zombies around them. They harass, terrorize and inflict damage on Rick and his people to the point that Rick’s own retribution once the two groups have finally come face-to-face for the final time will probably shock some readers. Readers who may still believe that decency and humanity still has a place in a world which has none.

As I read this story-arc I came to the conclusion that if I was in Rick’s shoes I don’t know if I would’ve done what he did. To say that his actions (though only hinted at in the illustrations) went beyond the pale would be an understatement. But I did understand why he did what he did and also why those who went with him either assisted or didn’t stop it. I feel like this story-arc has finally shown how those who have disapproved of Rick’s methods to keep the group alive have finally come to their very own conclusion that he has taken it upon himself to do some evil to protect the group and that it has taken a toll on him. The rest are now willing to take their share of this if just to help relieve Rick of some of the guilt he carries with him for his past actions.

This volume has been one of the strongest one in the series and shows why Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd fell in love with the series to adapt it for tv. The Walking Dead is all about the characters and has tapped into a rich source of material about how people in general deal with adversity and how some rise above it while most fail in their attempts to remain human. Rick and those with him remain on the precipice but so far has kept enough of their decency not to go over it the way the “Hunters” obviously had done so. But they remain balanced on a razor’s edge and sooner or later Rick or someone he’s close to will go over and that would make a tragic situation that readers will have to deal with whether they want it to happen or not.

Review: The Walking Dead Volume 10 (by Robert Kirkman)

[Some Spoilers Within]

The Walking Dead is only a couple weeks away from premiering as an AMC tv series. It is an event that legions of the comic book series’ fans have been awaiting for years and counting. The fact that I am now reviewing the tenth volume in the series’ collected trades is testament to the title’s continuing and growing popularity with readers. The fifty-four issues which precedes the six collected in this volume has seen main protagonist Rick Grimes and the group of survivors he’s leading through the zombie apocalypse go through triumphs, heartache and the inevitable purging from their perceived safety behind prison walls. This tenth collection will continue to show how Rick and those in his group who have survived have changed and sometimes not for the better.

“What We Become” is an apt title for this tenth volume. Rick has always been the de facto leader of his group even when he’s tried to give the responsibility to someone else to handle. In this volume we see how the events which led to the group escaping the destruction of their prison haven has affected not just Rick mentally but also his son Carl and some of the surviving members of the group. Dale, who has been a staunch ally of Rick’s in their journey through the zombie wasteland, has become a bitter shell of his former self as he sees each and every opportunity for him, Andrea and the twin boys to find a stable, safe haven come to naught and he sees Rick as the one to blame.

It doesn’t help Rick and his original group that the new additions which joined them in the last volume (Sgt. Abe Ford, Rosita Espinoza and Eugene Porter) have added to some of the internal tension in the group. Rick and Abe do not get on the right foot as they travel together towards a new destination. A destination provided by Eugene who says he’s been in contact with surviving elements of the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. It’s a destination that not everyone believes in, but it’s a goal nonetheless.

It’s during a side mission conducted by Rick, Carl and Abe that we see the depths Rick will go to protect his son when they’re ambushed by bandits during a routine stop to rest. We don’t see exactly what Rick does to one of the bandits who tried to go all Catholic priest-like on Carl, but we see from the reaction shots from Carl and the sounds made that it wasn’t pretty and civilized. It’s the aftermath of this event that Rick and Abe begin to bond somewhat and finally understand why they’ve done some of the awful things they have had to do since the fall of civilization.

For a volume that was all about exploring the damage the zombie apocalypse has done to those left behind it was actually pretty action-packed, but it wasn’t done so for the sake of putting action and gore on the pages. These sequences helped move the story along. It did help keep the volume from being just all about exposition (I know something detractors will continue to point out about Kirkman’s writing).

“What We Become” also bring back a past characters readers haven’t seen since the first couple issues of the series and seeing what the passing year or so since Rick last left him was very heartwrenching. This were characters fans have been requesting Kirkman to bring back. They wanted to see how they’ve been doing in their own attempt to survive. What Kirkman has delivered probably wasn’t what many were expecting and it definitely took some steel pairs to do what he did.

The volume ends with the group up one more survivor with their journey to D.C. still many days or weeks left in it. For those who have been following the series since the beginning and still do then the next volume will bring in a new story-arc which Kirkman just calls “The Hunters”.

Until then grab your rifle and machete, bar the doors and windows, hoard the food and water and definitely destroy the stairs behind you.

Review: The Walking Dead Volume 9 (by Robert Kirkman)

[Some Spoilers Within]

Volume 9 of Robert Kirkman’s critically-acclaimed and award-winning comic book series continues right after the bloodbath of Volume 8’s “Made to Suffer”. The last volume ended what had been a major story-arc which had lasted for almost over two years. It changed the series in ways that would be felt for years to come (Kirkman has stated that he plans to continue writing The Walking Dead for as long as there’s more stories to tell and he sees countless more to come). This follow-up volume, aptly titled “Here We Remain”, look at the aftermath of the events in the battle for the prison.

The group led by series’ protagonist Rick Grimes have gotten smaller as Kirkman made good at his statements in the past that deaths would come to the group unexpectedly and take those fans have grown to like. While Rick Grimes still remains (so far, the story remains in his point-of-view and his telling there’s a sense that even he doesn’t seem exempt from being killed off in the future) and others of the group gradually come back with him throughout the volume the sense of sadness for those who didn’t make it after the Woodsbury attack on the prison hang over the whole story-arc.

We see how the zombie apocalypse and all the events Rick has had to go through to this point has finally affected his mental state to some degree. While he hasn’t gone completely over the deep end, the scenes with Rick and an unplugged phone found in an abandoned home hits home very hard. Here’s a man who tried to do what he thought was best not just for his family and the rest of the group he led, but also tried to keep a semblance of humanity while doing so. Doubts and regrets about his decision begin to creep in and the unplugged phone becomes a focus for Rick to air out his internal struggles with the voice in the other end. This new side to Rick definitely feel like a logical progression for the one character in the whole series who has suffered the most while at the same time trying to keep an outward face of calmness and leadership.

This volume also gives Rick’s son Carl some time on his own (on his own to a certain degree) time to show how much he also has changed his he was introduced in the first volume. While he still acts like the kid that he is there’s definite signs that he has changed to the situation the world is in now. At time in this volume Carl sounds way older than his age and that has bothered some fans and critics of the series. While in any other type of situation that would be a criticism that would be a deal-breaker for me in this case I say it actually shows just how traumatizing the world has become to even the younger set. One either gives up and live in a fantasy world inside their mind or grow up fast in order to survive. It looks like Carl has chosen the latter.

Some critics of the book has pointed out that Kirkman’s handle on dialogue is actually not that great. I wouldn’t disagree as he’s prone to too much exposition, but the fact that he still pulls in the reader with what he’s writing tells me that he’s found a way to tap into what interests the reader while keeping his vision for the book alive. With the book already in its 12 volume (should get to that 12th one right before the premiere of the first season tv series) I can’t see Kirkman changing his writing style anytime soon or if he ever will. This is the path he has chosen on how to write