Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"300" : Reviewed

You know that song I mentioned on Monday? "Insect Eyes"? Couldn't be more tired of it now. I'm actually listening to it now but don't feel like skipping to the next track on my already done-to-death iTunes playlist entitled "Listenable Songs". It's a bad habit of mine -- I find a song I like and then listen it into the ground. I predict the next victim will be "Counterfeit Rules", a song by a group called Snowden. It's real good, I'd been trying to steal it for a long time and finally got it yesterday, but by this time tomorrow, I suspect I'll be shuddering at its first note.

Anyway, "300". As you may already know, I've been following this film with great interest. That first trailer Warner Bros. put out for this movie, replete with digitally-enhanced color palette, apocalyptic imagery, a shovel-bearded Gerard Butler screaming pithy, manly encouragement to his soldiers ("This is where we fight! This is where they die!") all set to a lyric-less Trent Reznor track, worked like gangbusters. And Zack Snyder's great work on the "Dawn of the Dead" remake all promised very good things for this film. Did he come through?

Mostly yes, but a little no.

I saw "300" on opening day. I'd been planning to see it on the IMAX screen up at the Mall of Georgia, but a quick check of Fandango the morning of revealed that all the shows were sold out. (That's how far I usually plan in advance) And all the next day's shows. And all but the midnight show on Sunday. Crushing disappointment. Once I'd stopped shaking and wiped my tears away, we (myself, my wife and my brother) decided to see it on one of the comparatively tiny screens I'm forced to see everything else on.

Overall, I liked "300" quite a bit. Predictably, I think "Sin City" is a good film to compare with "300". Not only are both films adapted from Frank Miller graphic novels, but both directors decided to be slavishly faithful to the source material, in effect bringing the comics to life panel by panel. I think that in this respect, both films succeed beyond expectations. But when bringing the comic to life is the director's primary aesthetic mission, particularly if the comic in question strives for a stripped-down, graphic look, realism falls necessarily by the wayside, and with it go authentic human emotion and the genuine cathartic experience most films are shooting for (even though most never get close). This movie was loud and beautiful and evocative, but I didn't really feel this movie as I'd expected to; I never got particularly wrapped up in the plot. I think Snyder was so deeply engaged with the process of making each shot perfect and trailer-ready that, along the way, the story arc may have been given shorter shrift.

Part of the problem might have been that because each shot in "300" is so finely-wrought and infused with the inherent emotion that comes with depictions of war, there was no room for emotional peaks that most films have at their disposal to really drive home a moment. When Leonidas's wife gives the evil politician a piece of her mind, I didn't feel like there was a lot of resonance in that moment, even though Snyder and his coterie of screenwriters set it up as best they could. The fact that the Spartans in this film are all members of a national death-cult and value their lives not at all weighed against their notions of honor might explain why I wasn't terribly concerned with which Spartans lived and which died. Hell, they didn't, why should I?

To continue with my quibbling, I thought that whenever the story veered away from the 300, (particularly Butler's King Leonidas), the movie was the worse for it. The Sparta sets and the Xerses throne room sets seemed more appropriate for a syndicated Saturday-afternoon action show than a $100 million studio release. Sets built for film are just shitty mock-ups, of course, (any stroll through a museum filled with film props illustrate this fact very clearly) but often the filmmakers help sell the sets as the genuine article through deft lighting. In both the hunchback seduction scene and the scene in Sparta where a bad thing happens to Leonidas's wife, I thought the lighting was slapdash and inappropriately bright and colorful, which made the not-so-great sets look all the worse.

But enough bitching. For the most part, this thing's glorious to watch and I'm looking forward to seeing it again on DVD. Gerard Butler as King Leonidas is fantastic in this. Though he seems like a fresh face, looking back at his filmography, I realized I've actually seen him work in both "Dracula 2000" (he played Dracula) and "Timeline" (he played the bad guy) both of which I'm embarrassed to admit I saw in theaters. But the thing is I still don't remember him in those films. I think he needed a good part in a good movie to demonstrate his star power (chances Orlando Bloom is given frequently and happily squanders), so I think he's here to stay. At least for a while. There's already talk that he wants to do a prequel to "Escape from New York" -- he would play Snake Plissken. I'll keep an open mind but it sounds like a misstep to me.

As for the hullabaloo over the political undertones in the film, I'd say they're blown a bit out of proportion. I don't think Zack Snyder has an axe to grind or a message to deliver with "300". (Though Frank Miller might have had one back when he wrote and drew the thing in the late 90's.) Apparently, Iranians are going gaga with rage over the movie back in the former Persia, just from hearing the descriptions of how they're portrayed in the film. (In this case, I think seeing the film would only make them more angry, and likely with cause).

Truth be told, seeing this film I got the distinct impression that "300" really was a pro-Bush, pro-"War on Terror" propagandist film. The warriors, led by their warrior-king, are the good and righteous ones who realize that war is the only answer, while the craven politicians are back at home in the Senate, debating and being devious, cynical ninnies, undercutting the "troops" with their nasty dissent. Throughout the film the nebulous concept of "freedom" is given a great deal of import by the steely Spartans who've been hung out to dry by their own myopic countrymen as well as Leonidas's stoic wife left behind to keep the homefires burning. Sean Hannity might as well have been the screenwriter. But my guess is that while that interpretation is valid, it exists outside of the film or the filmmakers intent. I don't believe anyone involved with this film was in anyway making a pro-"War on Terror" movie. It just happens to be one because that's how Miller wrote it back in 1998 (three years before September 11th, incidentally). Snyder's pled ignorance on the subject of political statements, and I'll take his word for it. But if some New Yorker article comes out in 5 years that reveals Zack Snyder is actually a big friend of all the Fox News personalities, "300" will make a lot more sense.

Anyway, this is already so long I suppose it doesn't matter if I want to drone on a little longer about the movie. Here's two things I thought were funny.

1.) One time Leonidas's wife actually says these words: "Freedom isn't free." I thought instantly of the song with the same title in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's brilliant "Team America". The next lyric in that song, by the way, is, "No, there's a hefty fuckin' fee." My wife turned to me when she heard it to whisper the song to me. (The true cost of freedom is a "buck oh five.") Very funny. I was kind of shocked that got all the way through into the finished film; didn't Snyder or any of them see that movie.

And 2.) the high angle wide shot looking down on the Spartans as they tromp en masse towards their deaths. Every single one of them is ripped and cut in exactly the same way. Fat pecs, sculpted abs, rippling arms. There was just something very gay about it that made me laugh. Were all those guys really that cut do you think, or was there some prosthetics and make-up involved? Had to be, right?

Anyway, despite the movie's flaws, I think Snyder's work with "300" bodes well for "Watchmen". Some reports say that Snyder's adaptation will be set in the 80's (perfect) and it will be a long film (as it should be) and that Gerard Butler will have a role in it (hopefully as the Comedian). So far, I haven't heard a single thing I don't like about what Snyder and his team are up to. I think because Alan Moore's graphic novel is more layered and nuanced and well-written than Miller's "300", we have a stronger foundation on which to build and the makings of something really great. Or the biggest letdown in a generation. We'll see.

No comments: