Niagara Gazette

March 4, 2014

CALLERI: '300' sequel and 'Omar' light up area screens this week

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The motion picture awards seasons is officially over. You may now relax and move about the cabin, or rather, your favorite movie theater. A couple of new films, “300: Rise Of An Empire” and “Omar,” are seeking your attention.

Regarding awards, if you followed my advice in my column in last week’s newspaper, you would have gotten 19 out of 24 Academy Award categories correct. Hopefully you did, and won some kind of delightful prize in your Oscar pool.

Lucy Bevan, the casting director for “300: Rise Of An Empire” must have emptied out every fitness center in Bulgaria, where the movie was shot, to find the hundreds of heavily-muscled, half-naked men that thrash about in this fantasy adventure film. The story here, which runs concurrently with events seen in the original “300,” takes us back to 480 B.C., and the Persian invasion of Greece, during which you will witness R-rated savagery and slaughter the likes of which many of you may never have seen.

The film earns its rating for swordplay that goes the brutality distance, including, but not limited to extensive beheadings, scores of disembowelments, countless chopped-off limbs, and bodies cleaved in half. If that’s not enough for the bloodlust crowd, the evil female Persian leader, Artemisia I of Caria, and the male Athenian leader, Themistocles, will have very rough sex, an extended scene of carnal sadism, which, although never fully going below the waist, offers graphic nudity and thudding sound effects. And just in case you don’t think any of this is enough to justify an R-rating, Artemisia enjoys kissing a severed head.

In “300: Rise Of An Empire,” thick, dark-red blood splashes everywhere, sometimes freezing in mid-air so that you can relish its splattering in uncomfortable 3D. Throughout the picture, we are witness to an exercise in excess that eventually ends up killing, not only scores of screaming soldiers and doomed oarsmen slaves, but also our very own moviegoing spirit. A heavy diet of anything is always detrimental. The historical story is buried under a surfeit of ultra-violence. The audience at the preview screening became exhausted and then disinterested.

The screenplay by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. In France, homegrown graphic novels are considered high art. In America these heavy-duty comic books seem like excuses for their creators to think dirty and to ratchet up villainy to the extreme.

The film centers on Themistocles and Artemisia I, as well as the weary Queen Gorgo of Sparta and the bellicose Xerxes I of Persia, a deeply-tanned fellow prone to piercing his body so that he can wear chains of all shapes and sizes. What little story there is focuses primarily on naval engagements, especially the Battle of Artemisium, which was going on around the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae. We do learn that the Greek city-states are desperate to unify to resist the vicious and determined Artemisia and her leather clad minions. Born Greek, she has turned against her homeland because of childhood issues, including sexual psychosis and bondage.

Snyder directed “300” and gave it some style. He has produced the sequel, but has left the directing, and I use the word loosely, to Noam Murro, who has made a cluttered, superfluous movie. He slathers on the violence because he has no clue as to how to build tension. He wants to distract the audience from his film’s shallowness.

The cinematography is murky; grays and blacks dominate, and looming shadows take the place of believable drama. There are times when the 3D glasses make it seem as if you’re watching the movie through dirty bath water. The British and Bulgarian cast members are a gaggle of non-entities. Only the Parisian-born Eva Green, as the evil Artemisia, creates an interesting character.

“300: Rise Of An Empire” is an utterly banal attempt to cash in on a much better movie.

“Omar,” the Palestinian submission for an Academy Award, was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar, but lost to “The Great Beauty,” an exceptional work, to be sure. “Omar” made it to the finals. Its place in the top five was justified.

Hany Abu-Assad wrote and directed this very strong political thriller about Omar, a young man, wonderfully played by Adam Bakri, who is in love with the girl of his dreams. But Omar must climb the wall that runs through his homeland to see her. His passion compels him to work for the Palestinian cause. The killing of an Israeli soldier results in Omar’s arrest. He’s guilty only by association. The Israelis force him to spy on his own people, and the powerful and emotional movie proceeds from there.

“Omar” is about the simplest of human desires. It deserves to be seen.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.