Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why Eva Green — and Kinky Sex in 3D — Almost Save 300: Rise of an Empire

Posted By on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 3:32 PM

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Let's talk about Eva Green. Some may know her from Bertolucci's The Dreamers, where she and Louis Garrel managed to present a united force in sexual everything, making a film sexually irresistible to all. Some may know her as Vesper Lynd, the Bond Girl who kickstarted the James Bond reboot with style, class, and the kind of effortless sensual dynamism that was previously thought to have vanished somewhere near France in the late '60s. Some may even know her as Serafina Pekkala, the witch queen from the tragically underrated film of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.

The thing is, everybody knows Eva Green from something, because she is an actress who makes an impression that doesn't easily fade. This brings us to 300: Rise of an Empire, a film that aims to encompass its seven-year senior progenitor from before, after, and simultaneously, filling in many of the gaps surrounding Thermopylae as regards Greece's battles with the Persian Empire. With the vast majority of 300's characters dead, the new film shifts focus to the Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his travails while battling the Persian forces, building to the epic throwdown at Salamis.

While the original 300 was a monster of a hit — in addition to being incredibly stupid, sexually fascist, equally homophobic and homoerotic, ignorant about actual classical-era behavior and philosophies, and sexist — it didn't really do much besides the same thing, over and over again. So let's give the filmmakers behind the new film a little bit of credit, for introducing two elements that immediately distinguish Rise of an Empire from the first 300: water and women.

Whereas 300 was predominantly hand-to-hand combat in and on the mountains, this one focuses on naval battles, so we've got big ships and vast seascapes stretching off into the digital infinity of 3D. That helps break up the monotony of the shouting and the stabbing and the "SPAR-ta!" Because yes, even though this film is more concerned with Athens and the other Greek city-states, Sparta remains a major point of focus because of the precedent set by the first film.

But the bigger step is the addition of the warrior general Artemisia. More inspired by comic book heroines than actual history, the film's Artemisia is a minister of death on land and sea, ending lives and severing extremities with heaving bosom and nary an eyelash out of place. It is fortunate for all involved parties that this is Eva
Green's part. Green's is a performance that literally transcends the movie it's in and somehow improves a dire slog just by its presence. Think Angelina Jolie in Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. Think Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer. Think Gina Gershon in Showgirls (except Showgirls is, in fact, awesome — it's just that Gershon is the only person who understands the exact right tone for the proceedings). These are performances where they only proper response is a respectful, "Damn."

The latest trend in 3D conversions that really needs to stop are particles of ash floating through the air. They're ostensibly diegetic, but are really just there to give something easy to render in every scene, so there's not a way to fix in on a wonky point of convergence. They're distracting as hell. But there's one thing that the 3D on Rise of an Empire does masterfully — and it's the scene that makes the whole film worthwhile. Green and Stapleton are known as actors for showing off the groceries, and they are the main characters of the film. So when they have a meeting that turns into a positively fraught sex scene, finally humanity gets what it's been waiting for — good actors getting freaky in 3D and letting the flesh fly.

Kinky, grabby, and suffused with more thought and subtext than anything else in the film, this scene could quite possibly do as much for the resurgence of 3D as Gravity. We'll just have to wait and see. But to Green and Stapleton, I give the utmost respect for finally making something genuinely captivating happen in the film. Yeah, there are gouts of blood and "inspirational" political speeches that ape buzzwords from American politics rather than the actual political issues affecting the world circa 450 BCE, and there are shaved, glistening abs as far as the eye can see, but nothing makes as much of an impact as the softcore 3D.

There's one really interesting aspect of the Themistokles character that gets shortchanged. At heart, he thinks the Spartans are a bunch of hyperviolent yahoos who don't care about anything except battle. He appreciates what they are good at, and he certainly respects them as a city-state. But time and again, he's barely able to control his annoyance at the beer commercial/military recruiting video/Tom of Finland Christmas card upon which Spartan society and the first 300 film is constructed (along with, tragically, much of the intervening action cinema since). He has to resort to platitude Mad Libs to inspire his assemblage of farmers and poets eventually, but he still aims for appealing to the intellect rather than fetishizing hand-to-hand combat and a warrior's death.

Themistokles could have been a great way to address many of the inherent problems with the first film, but the filmmakers sadly don't go far enough. Wisely, the film keeps the Godking C3PO (Lost's Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes I) offsides, because he's not really important to the story except as catalyst and witness. The filmmakers have also gone for a very traditional Jason Voorhees-circa-The Final Chapter look for the treacherous hunchback character Ephialtes, which proves that Savini makeup does endure.

Regardless, this is Eva Green's show, and she rules in a way that will inspire women, dancers, drag queens, artists, and personal trainers the world over for the rest of her life. Respect is due.

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