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“300" Spartans Make Last Stand By: Don Feder
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 03, 2007


Go tell the Spartans -- that the critics hated “300,” released on DVD Tuesday.

The computer-enhanced epic is loosely based on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), where Spartans under King Leonidas held off a vastly superior force of Persians for three days, buying precious time for the Greeks to prepare to stop the invasion of Europe by what was then the greatest empire on earth.

The critics didn’t just loathe the movie. Many were personally offended by it. “’300’ is about as violent as ‘Apocalypto,’ and twice as stupid,” sneered The New York Times’ A.O. Scott.

Kyle Smith, critic for the New York Post, the city’s allegedly conservative paper, ended his tirade with, “It isn’t a stretch to imagine Adolf’s boys at a ‘300’ screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again.”

And that would be because Hitler believed in representative government and self-determination for small states?

Critics hated the portrayal of the Spartans as hunky Europeans, while their adversaries were of a darker hue. “It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white,” A.O. Scott ominously reported. Pity they didn’t have affirmative action for Spartan warriors, 2,500 years ago.

Persian soldiers wore turbans (a nod of the head to Islamo-phobia?). And Leonidas’ comment about Athenian “boy lovers” was hardly PC, -- not to mention the somewhat swishy portrayal of the Persian ruler Xerxes as a king who would be queen.

But what really got them going (far more than the blood-spurting battle scenes and naked torsos) were the speeches about death before dishonor, and a last-stand fight for civilization.

Lines like “Freedom isn’t really free at all. It is paid for in blood of those who fight for it” (spoken by Spartan Queen Gorgo) drove ‘em nuts. And the surrender lobby in the Spartan Council – led by the serpentine Theron (can’t we all just learn to get along?) -- hit too close to home.

As David Gelernter notes in his book “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion,” since the end of the First World War, pacifism has been an article of faith for the cultural elite. Anything seeming to suggest that there are things worse than war (like slavery, genocide and national extinction), incites their withering contempt.

“300” isn’t “Spartacus” (another epic of freedom-fighting biceps and torsos), but it is macho fun. And how can you resist lines like the Spartan response, “Then we’ll fight in the shade,” to the Persian taunt “Our arrows will block out the sun” -- or Gorgo telling Leonidas “Come back with your shield, or on it,” the classic admonition of Spartan mothers to their sons departing for battle.

Hoo-hah!

SOMEONE’S IN THE KITCHEN WITH CATHERINE

“NO RESERVATIONS” – New in theaters.

Critics are comparing “No Reservations” unfavorably to the German film (“Mostly Martha”) on which it’s based. I wouldn’t know. You’d need a gun to get me to a foreign film. For a German film, make that a machinegun.

“No Reservations” contains no surprises. The ending is predictable.

Still, it’s pleasant, well-acted (if not exactly hearty) fare. In the romantic leads, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart have chemistry (not the kind practiced by Moslem physicians in the U.K.).

As the executive chef at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, the delicious Zeta-Jones is presented as a Type-A, obsessive, controlling single and single-minded career woman. Maybe -- but there’s a vulnerability lurking below the surface that gives her character some depth.

Kate Armstrong (Zeta-Jones), a brilliant chef, is ordered into therapy by her employer, to overcome a cutting-edge temper aroused by the demands of unruly customers.

While she prepares magnificent dishes, Kate is so consumed by the quest for perfection that it seems she doesn’t even enjoy her own creations.

Food isn’t the only thing she doesn’t take the time to savor. Kate avoids romantic entanglements and can’t even develop a rapport with her staff.

A car accident takes the life her sister and brings a precocious 10-year-old into hers. There’s nothing like a child to humanize even a hardened mistress of the mousse. But first Kate has to penetrate niece Zoe’s shell of grief. (Zoe is played by an older Abigail Breslin, who charmed audiences in “Little Miss Sunshine.”)

While Kate is away grieving and trying to connect, and the restaurant’s sous chef is having a baby, the owner hires Nick (Eckhart).

Nick is a Type-SIO (sings Italian opera) personality. He also jokes with the staff and makes complicated cooking look as easy as sprinkling powdered sugar on a stack of pancakes.

When Kate brings withdrawn Zoe to the restaurant, loveable Nick wins her over with a bowl of spaghetti. The rest is standard romantic stuff, spiced with appealing characters, tantalizing culinary creations and a great score -- a charmingly eclectic mix of opera, swing and original pieces.

Eckhart, who usually plays a cynic or a cad, should do more comedy. Zeta-Jones should too, while avoiding men in masks.

“No Reservations” may not be crème brulee. But it’s as satisfying as a hot-fudge sundae, following a pasta dinner.

WHITE MEN BAD – RED MEN GOOD

“PATHFINDER” – also just released on DVD

“Pathfinder” perpetuates the myth of the monster white man. The film’s genocidal Vikings are stand-ins for Puritans, pioneers, cowboys and 7th Cavalry. That’s all you need to know.

Set “500 years before Columbus,” as we’re told in the intro, it’s the story of happy, peaceful native Americans (living in harmony with nature, naturally), who are beset by the first would-be colonizers on these shores – Norsemen from Hell.

The story opens with a foray, in which a Viking lad is abandoned when his father judges him a sissy-boy for refusing to slaughter an Indian child. The good Caucasian (there has to be one, but usually no more, in each of these films -- a la Kevin Costner in “Dances With Wolves”) is promptly adopted by the tribe and named “Ghost.”

Some 15 years later, the Dragon ships return and Ghost swings a sword for his adopted tribe.

Granted, the Vikings weren’t Quakers. (“From the wrath of the Norsemen deliver us, ‘O Lord.”) But when they weren’t raiding, they came to conquer, rule and exact tribute, not to engage in wholesale ethnic cleansing.

These Vikings could take etiquette lessons from Orcs.

They’re hulking, sadistic brutes who are obsessed with the annihilation of a gentle people. But, then, isn’t that just like wicked whites – the curse of humanity as Susan Sontag (“the white race is the cancer of human history”) once informed us. The natives, noble souls, are even so gender-correct that they end up being led by a woman.

The Vikings of “Pathfinder” are Nazis with battle axes, while their counterparts are saints in deerskins. The movie gives clichés a bad name.


Don Feder is a former Boston Herald writer who is now a political/communications consultant. He also maintains his own website, DonFeder.com.


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