Sunday, September 28, 2014

Film Review: Meet the Spartans

Meet the Spartans
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Studio: Regency / 3 in the Box
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release: 25 January 2008
  • Directors: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
  • Producers: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, Peter Safran
  • Writers: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Disaster Movie, an entry in the oeuvre of filmmakers Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, inasmuch as I can call them filmmakers, that is. Their previous film, released earlier in 2008, was Meet the Spartans, and it attempted to mix up their formula by focusing on the plot of one particular movie as opposed to a few loosely connected ones, namely 300, the ancient-Greek-set, Frank-Miller-comic-based blockbuster from the year before. And unsurprisingly, it sucked. In fact, I've got so much bile to direct at this film, I cut down on the time I spent summarising its events in favour of analysing the specific parts that tick me off.

Our story stars a mister Leonidas (Sean McGuire), who trains from a young age to become a soldier, marries a miss Margo (Carmen Electra), and becomes the king of Sparta. And he certainly didn't get that crown for his acting acumen, that's for sure. Mr. McGuire puts on a Scottish accent in attempt to emulate Gerard Butler, who played the same character in the real 300, but it's so unevenly thick that it ends up feeling nothing like the real thing. And don't get me started on Carmen Electra, who doubtless was casted based on sex appeal first and everything else second. Which implies some unfortunate things about what producers think of their audiences, but that's a rant for another day.

With its open-quote protagonists close-quote established, Meet the Spartans takes on one of the more famous scenes from 300: the Pit of Death. You know the drill: "This is madness", "This is Sparta", kick 'im in. Apart from some gratuitous spittle added to the final line, it starts out relatively faithful to the original. But then Leonidas gets carried away and kicks in some of the more punchable public figures of 2007, such as Britney Spears (Nicole Parker), American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar (Tony Yalda), and the judges from said show. From first kick to last, this scene lasts for 160 seconds and 10 casualties, which makes me wonder: have these guys never heard of the "Rule of Three"? As currently defined by TVTropes, the Rule of Three is "a pattern used in stories and jokes, where part of the story is told three times, with minor variations." Let a pun or a gag run for more than three instances, and it runs the risk of getting old or unfunny in some other regard.

Also, I am hesitant to call this a parody of the original Pit of Death scene. Sure, he may have kicked some unusual characters down there, but when you get right down to it, it's generally the same routine over and over. Why not experiment with different types of strikes, or have someone fall down there accidentally? Listen, I don't want bad things to go away; I want them to learn from their mistakes and come back better. ...After having gone away to do so. But one thing I would rather go away for good would be an earlier scene where Leonidas is "training" his son (Hunter Clary), and by open-quote training close-quote, I mean beating him up with a sequence of increasingly brutal moves. Not only does he break the Rule of Three here as well, but this gag wasn't funny the first time around! I mean, the poor little guy's half Leo's size! Dude? Not cool. Just. Not. Cool. Now, I've seen (and am thinking of reviewing) Ken'ichi: The Mightiest Disciple so I know the value of building up your abilities through training, but this? This is just traumatic! Not just for him, but traumatic to watch, too! But most important of all, it's Just. Not. Funny.

Jumping back forward a bit, Leonidas assembles his army to sock it to the Persians, but only manages 13 soldiers, as opposed to the 300 that the source material would have you believe. Among them are a captain named... Captain (Kevin Sorbo), his son named... Sonio (Travis van Winkle), and a fat kid named Dilio (Jareb Dauplaise). Not to mention, one of the Spartan councilmen is named Traitoro (Diedrich Bader), and if you guessed that he's going to double-cross the protagonists in some capacity, then you don't get any brownie points because it was just too obvious. I can has originality plz? ...Hey, wait a minute, what's the deal-io with Dilio? (Apologies for that unfortunate bout of forced rhyming.) In the opening scene, we see that Spartan babies who don't meet certain physical standards (for example, Shrek) get thrown to the wolves, literally. Wouldn't Dilio have been preemptively weeded out as a baby? Whatever, he's here to be everyone's punching bag and this movie's source of attempted fat jokes. As in, "fat people love to eat a lot because... funny". Ugh. Did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, real life contains fat people who are trying to rectify their situation instead? I am reminded of a quote from the Simpsons episode "King Size Homer":
Homer Simpson: This may surprise you, but you can't buy me off with food. I'm sick of all your stereotypes and cheap jokes! The overweight individuals in this country are just as smart and talented and hard working as everybody else. And they're going to make their voices heard! All they need is a leader.
You go, Ho'. And while I'm on the subject, in my review of Disaster Movie, I threw in a brief editorial about how I thought the Hollywood movie industry was still a bit racist and "gay-cist". Whilst that is obiously not true of all American screenwriters and directors, I certainly get that impression with messrs. Seltzerberg, and Meet the Spartans is perhaps their worst movie of all in that regard. What I mean by that is, because the Spartan characters in 300 all had ripped physiques and fought in a certain degree of undress, apparently messrs. Seltzerberg thought the logical extention of that should be to make them questionably homosexual. Leo's married to Carmen Electra, so those accusations can only go so far -- but these guys travel long distances by skipping gaily, arms locked in rows of two, singing Gloria Gaynor's hit "I Will Survive". Back on the home front, the men greet each other with deep tongue-kisses where they'd give high-fives to the ladies. And one of their (many) advert riffs, based on the Budweiser "Real Men of Genius" series, is all about them being closeted homosexuals. I could maybe appreciate this sort of thing solely as a reversal of Hollywood's traditional pandering to the male gaze -- and there's no shortage of that, given the presence of Carmen Electra -- but that argument doesn't hold up because the men's ambiguously gay status is thrust upon them (no pun intended) solely for us to laugh at. Well, the joke's on you bub -- even without the offensive context, it's just. Not. Funny.

Whatever. The Spartans'... um, tactical maneouvering takes them to place called the Hot Gates, where they meet Paris Hilton (also Nicole Parker). Here she is a hunchback, because... the character playing her role in the original 300 was himself a hunchback. Huh, I don't usually answer those "because..." lines fully. But if you haven't yet seen or read 300, you may be asking yourself why Paris Hilton is a hunchback. And that would be a very good question. Maybe it's because we're supposed to like seeing these famous wastes of space get taken down a peg. That's a pretty dangerous assumption to make, I tell ya. So then a Persian squad shows up and challenges the Spartans to a breakdance competition and a "Yo Mamma" battle, both of which the Spartans win. Also, Dilio gets his eyes scratched out at some point. As in, we see the background behind him where his eyes should be. Umm... aren't we supposed to be seeing the insides of his eye sockets instead? I mean, I'm kinda squeamish myself, but this is creepy in the wrong way. Like, the wrong side of the uncanny valley creepy. See it for yourself, if you dare.
Spooked? I warned you this effect was just wrong.
Given the... quirky, pseudo-artsy style of Zack Snyder's film and Frank Miller's comic, you'd think that would provide fodder for some true parody moments, and believe it or not, Meet The Spartans does take up that offer every once in a while. For example, there's what looks a sex scene between Leonidas and Queen Margo, until it is revealed that he was merely bench-pressing her. During the climactic fight, Leonidas takes down a sequence of enemies in a sequence abruptly alternating between slow- and fast-motion, which parodies Zach Snyder's (the director of 300) egregious use of the same. And you know how the real 300 used a lot of fake CGI sets? Well, the Persian army in Meet the Spartans is buffed up by CG-cloned soldiers projected on blue-screens behind the real ones. And call me Shirley, but this is actually somewhat funny! At least it would have been funny if the characters didn't devolve into an awkward conversation explaining the joke. And besides, messrs. Seltzerberg, you lost the right to make fun of production values (or a lack thereof) when you decided that taping some green eyelids over the guy and throwing in a cheap chroma-key effect would suitably create the effect of him losing his eyes!

Whoo... I'm starting to get angry there. For my final observation, I'd like to hurry it along... just like the film itself. See, its total running time is given as 82 minutes*, but the opening credits start at the 64 minute mark, so by all accounts, that's when the film really ends. And it shows -- the ending feels rushed. For the capstone of the climactic skirmish, the Persian king Xerxes (Ken Davitian) merges with a car to become a Transformer robot. And of course, they don't have the capability to actually show it transforming. Oh, but he's got a video-screen in his chest that plays the "Leave Britney Alone" video! Because... funny. And how do our heroes vanquish their now-gargantuan foe? They don't -- mister Xerxestron (his name, not mine) pulls his own power cord out of some socket and shuts down, crushing the Spartans in the process. And there was much rejoicing. So after one more ending scene involving a blind commander Dilio and not-Lindsey Lohan, the credits begin in the form of the cast members taking turns singing "I Will Survive". And it is with great pain that I admit this was the most fun I had watching this movie. It's like the ending to a Broadway musical, which is probably what this movie should've been. I mean, it's got the same budget, so no big leap, right? A whole bunch of deleted scenes fill up the remaining time in between bouts of non-singing credits, after which you are now free to turn off your TV. Sorry for making you wait.

*Refers to the theatrically-released version. The unrated edition, which I did not account for in this review, runs for 86 minutes.

Among the entries of the Seltzerberg eouvre, Disaster Movie may suffer more blatant disregard for it source material (remember miss "Enchanted Princess"?), I think watching Meet the Spartans makes me feel worse. So much of the commentary on celebrities and the LGBT community, whether stated outright or inferred by me, is just hateful. And even if all that were not considered offensive, it takes the dubious crown for the most unfunny film classified as a comedy which I've ever witnessed (take that overly narrow description for what you will). And the horribly fake acting and cheap production values serve as the nails in this coffin. Or is it casket... Regardless, make no mistake: watching this movie is like dining in Hell.

+ By retelling the story of one movie, it's a bit more focused than some of Seltzerburg's other efforts.
+ It's short.

- Relies on unfunny, even offensive, jokes repeated way too often.
- Totally fake acting.
- Lousy special effects.
- A fifth of its runtime is spent on the credits.

Acting: 1 Sparta-kicks out of 5
Writing: 0 Sparta-kicks out of 5
Special Effects: 1 Sparta-kicks out of 5
Visual Design: 1 Sparta-kicks out of 5
The Call: 15% (F)

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