Monday, March 12, 2007

FILM: "300"


300 is the latest in a series of a new genre that I call "animated realism." Breakthroughs in film-making and special effects now allow not only for comic books to be feasibly adapted, but for their visual flairs and nuances as well. Not just films like Sin City (which Frank Miller also wrote and stylized) but works like Kung-Fu Hustle, which crosses Looney Tunes with gritty martial arts and traditional fables to produce a new and vigorously thrilling work. Of the three I've just named, 300 is the least daring, but it compensates by being lushly thrilling. Rather than creeping through the shadows of a noir's meticulous pacing or developing likeable characters, director Zack Snyder sprints through the backstory of a Spartan warrior's training (you think Batman had it tough?) to introduce the film's main set piece: the siege of Thermopylae, and the defense against unstoppable Xerxes by brave King Leonides and his 300 men at the Hot Gates.

When the first wave of soldiers clang against the Spartan's shields, you feel the tremors not just through the amplified vibrations of a movie theater, but through the palpable excitement of the people around you. Gerald Butler isn't a name brand: he's proof against the burden of celebrity. With a steely face and a jagged, Hammurabian beard, he roars through his lines just as he rips through his enemies, and there's never a moment where he loses credibility. Even when making jokes to boost his men's morale (or to bolster his own resolve), we never cease taking this deadly man seriously. That's a mistake we leave to the endless reserves of eye-candy that rip up against his soldiers.

From ninja warriors donning silver ogre masks to actual ogres, towering above the crowd and hurling axes through the air, this film succeeds by hurling the exotic at our heroes. A typical war movie is grounded in realism: 300 is encouraged to cheat. There are "wizards" who hurl gunpowder bombs, there are giant jewel-armored elephants, but there are mystical virgins, too.

The violence reaches a crescendo of eroticism, from the effete Xerxes to the bare "armor" of the cinematically "enhanced" soldiers. One of the film's most intriguing moments comes when a hunchbacked Spartan, discarded because of his inability to fight in tandem with the other units, is seduced by a harem of beautiful women: it is a mix of beauty and the beast, like something out of a Conan the Barbarian comic book, and it is an arousing orgy of sights for the big screen.

When we stop remarking on how original 300 is, there are of course some inevitable gripes. The action scenes are as well-oiled as the actors, but the scenes back in Sparta between Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the treacherous senator Theron (Dominic West, an unctuous mental counterpoint to the men), don't pack quite the same punch. Without the big sound effects or adrenaline-charged shots, the artistic pallor of the film makes the drama shallower than it should be. It also detracts from the pacing: attractive as Ms. Headey is, we came to see a slaughter: we left our ear for banter at the door.

300 isn't a tremendous leap forward for films (that credit belongs to Gladiator), but it is a remarkable advancement for comics. And, with the box-office success of 300, it might make a bold statement to bring the glory of art-heavy films back to the cinema: to make the filming as important as the film.

[First posted to Film Monthly, 3/13]


There are already plenty of reviews posted in favor of 300, Zack Snyder's highly stylized adaptation of an already highly stylized graphic novel by Frank Miller about the Spartan defense of Thermopylae. I liked the film too, so I won't take up entirely too much of your valuable time with a lengthy discourse as to why carefully choreographed carnage goes over so well (300 had the third-highest grossing "R" rated film opening). What I want to discuss is why Hollywood is so agog over this tremendous success. The answer, in a nutshell, is simple. Audiences crave something new, something exotic: A Scanner Darkly was trippy to watch, but it was a slow and paranoid thriller; Renaissance, which was an action film, was too white-washed of a style to keep people fascinated; and District B-13 and Kung-Fu Hustle both had modest performances because they redefined martial arts (the former with gritty realism, the latter with playful antics). Sin City was the last film to really shake up the genre, and 300 pulled in that same audience, just as The Matrix Reloaded, mired in hype and expectations, had no difficulty dominating the weekend crowds. (It's also been a while since a successful Gladiator-type film, another piece of cinema that relied heavily on saturation and hue to enhance the rather basic struggle of men against other men.)

Too much theory is a bad thing; so let's skip ahead to the facts. It doesn't take name-brand actors to sell a film: it takes good actors. Gerard Butler bulked up more for this than Christian Bale lost for The Machinist, and whether his abs are computer-animated, lasciviously oiled and tanned, or otherwise, none of this distracts from the core of emotion that Butler has cultivated within his steel-tempered King Leonides. Likewise, the political rivalry between a senator, Theron (Dominic West, on hiatus from The Wire), and Queen Gorgo (a ravishing Lena Headey) makes for a compelling sideplot and/or parallel between the so-called "deciders" and the actual "doers." But let's not read too much into the message: Zack Snyder's film is best when it's spraying artful and artifical plumes of blood across the screen, raging in tune to heavy metal background, and dazzling us with the bizarre miracles of a special effects team. This isn't as competent or well-paced a film as those in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but neither is it as lengthy or burdened with hyperbole.

Beyond the stunning performance at the box office, 300 deserves notice for being a good movie, too: it has elevated the art of framing and storytelling beyond the simple wide and close lenses of traditional action. Establishing shots in this film grip you; they are filled with action (like a dangerous scaling of a black mountain, or a shipwrecked coast). I enjoyed Batman Begins, but I found the action to be chaotic and hard to follow: 300, although occasionally cheating with its use of "bullet time," finds a pace that allows us not only to follow each move, but to predict them as well.

Why did 300 blow the box-office predictors away, long after all the moot hype for Snakes on a Plane? Because the film is a hip way of giving the audience exactly what it wants: gratuitious yet glorious death. King Leonides is a man full of flaws, but he is bold and brazen, and by all accounts a hero. At one point, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the god-king who has brought a horde's horde into battle at the Hot Gates, stands beside Leonides--his gold earrings glittering his cheeks like beautiful scars, the eyeshadow of his glare curled up in bitter amusement--and demands only that the Spartan kneel before him. Leonides turns, to face this girlish giant, and utters back a neat quip (of which jibes the film is full) that pardons his reluctance to kneel: "I would, but you see I've pulled a muscle massacring your men." Not only does he kill monstrous ogres and ninja-like men with silver-ogre masks, but he makes jokes too. How cool is that?

[First posted to Gather, 3/11]

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