March 16, 2007

Beyond Film

As I began to ponder writing a review of the film 300, I was struck by a simple thought. This is not a film designed for entertainment; it's high art.

Every frame reveals a stunning visual landscape that moves in a way that is elegant, calculated and visceral. Color (other than the ubiquitous splashes of red) becomes an afterthought, as our eyes instead focus on shapes, textures and shadows. It is as if the filmmaker wants us to truly appreciate the fact that we are watching a motion picture; a PICTURE in MOTION.

Make no mistake, 300 is ultraviolent. Death, blood and gore are really just a means to an end, however. Somehow even the most disgusting displays (such as bodies pinned to a tree) become sculpture. They are horrible in their beauty.

It is hard to show a static image and give you a true feeling for the movie, but even the pictures below give you some idea of the arresting quality of the movement. (Click on them to see bigger versions which are far more impressive.)

Stepping out of my poetic mode, let me get to the more traditional details. The cast is very strong, led by smoking hot Gerard Butler as Leonidas. He eradicates all memory of that horrible movie where he wore that white mask. Here he is powerful, smoldering and exhilirating. All of his mates in the Spartan army are equally adept, and they all possess bodies that certainly suggest divine genetic enhancement. I mean, who REALLY has abs like that? Still, you won't hear me complaining about watching a movie where 300 men run around in nothing but a pair of leather briefs! What I really loved was watching these men in motion (regular and slow-mo). They weren't so much actors as they were dancers, carrying out a dark ballet of mass murder. Again, horrible beauty in constant motion.

Also of note is Lena Headey as the Queen, who does her best to advance the subplot, and gets her own "You go, girl!" moment.

Rodrigo Santoro proves that he isn't just bad on Lost - I think he's just a bad actor, period.

All of the "sets" and backgrounds in the film are computer-generated, which seems impossible. The visuals are truly arresting, and I'm impressed that a film on such a large scale was done for such a relatively small budget (I think around $60M). Some people fear that this means filming on location or creating real-life sets will become a thing of the past, but I sincerely doubt it. Despite all the great images, it all still had a tinge of unreality to it (which I suspect was intentional). Nothing will replace the real picture of real grass in a field bending to a soft breeze.

The other driving force of the film is the soundtrack, which is a mix of rock and metal fused with Middle Eastern influences. I'm still haunted by the dance of the Oracle set to powerful drums and a woman's siren song. (Yes, I'm a dork and bought the soundtrack the next day.)

Normally you won't hear me mention a word about reviews for a movie. But I've read several for this film, and criticism tends to focus on two main issues. I'd like to address them.

1. The movie is weak on plot, offering no emotional arc.

Quite frankly, this is not a film where the plot is the point. As I've outlined above, I believe this is a film that should be observed as a work of art. It demands to be viewed with an objective eye. (And preferably on the biggest screen you can find - thankfully we saw it at the Uptown, which was fantastic.)

2. The movie paints an unsavory picture of Persians and their culture.

Apparently, this film has caused mass outrage in Iran. A country where, it should be noted, no one has even seen it. Setting aside the cultural issue (I won't debate ancient cultural influences on a modern society), to me the point is a simple one. The film (or more precisely, the graphic novel upon which it is based) is a work of historical FICTION, told from the point of view of the Spartans. Quite naturally, if a Spartan or his descendant is telling the tale, Sparta will look awesome, and Persia will look bad. Why not just make another film telling the same story from the Persian perspective? I'm sure it would be interesting, and assuredly different. Don't believe me? Clint Eastwood just did it with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

In conclusion, I loved this movie because it was so unlike anything I've seen in years, and I found myself analyzing it as if it were a canvas hanging in a gallery. See it, and see it now while you can on the big screen. I fear its visual impact will be lost when you try to see it on your television at home.

Wow, that's quite a long review. Well, it was worth it. Oh, and the grade? Definitely an A.


Stef said...

Interesting. I have to admit the violence has me a little cautious about seeing the film, but you have reaffirmed the argument that it's so visually stunning that if you're going to see it you should see it on the big screen.

The way you describe it reminds me of the movie "Hero" - which I gave 5 stars way back when. It's a good story with exciting action, but more so it is one of the most beautiful works of art I've ever seen. If you haven't seen that one, I do recommend it highly!

Dancer in DC said...

I haven't, but now that you mention it, it does remind me of other films in that genre, like House of Flying Daggers, which we did see. (Not the best story, but a visual stunner.)

ScottE. said...

I loved this film and really haven't stopped thinking about it since we saw it the other evening. It is absolutely stunning!!! Hands down! Even the violence is stunning...scenes were the Spartan army is running their spears into the Persians...the blood sprays are...disturbingly beautiful!

Great does capture was was most amazing about the film. The I love the soundtrack!

One thing I noted earlier...since this is based on a graphic novel, there are actually moments in the film where the movement stops, or slows, forcing you to look at the composition in a way a traditional film, or even traditional animation hasn't done before!!! BRAVO!

Stef said...

I did see this on the big screen last night. I hadn't really intended to see it ever, but after your reviews and my brother's huge endorsement I thought I'd check it out. So I recruited a few friends (and fellow LOST fans) to check it out.

I think I'd give it more along the lines of a B/B-. I am glad I saw it on the big screen, cuz the visuals were interesting. But I thought that for every 2 or 3 scenes that looked amazing, there would be 1 that looked poorly animated or with cheesy effects.

Really, anything involving Xerxes on screen bordered on the ridiculous. There was outright laughter in the theater whenever he appeared, and not the good kind. Paolo can NOT act, and his character was distracting. The whole 8-foot-tall superimposed scene reminded me of bad 70's sand-and-sandals movies we'd watch on Saturday morning tv.

All of that being said, the action was really good. The movie flew by and I was surprised that it was about 2 hours long cuz it felt a lot shorter, which is a good thing. (A movie that drags commits a cardinal sin in my book.) Yes, Gerard Butler was really good, as was Lena Headey and the hot guy who played Sean Bean's brother in LOTR. (He's the one doing the narration.) Dominic West is usually pretty good, so I was glad to see him in this. (And I did cheer at the "go girl!" moment.)

But.... I think the story could've done without its own Gollum. I kept expecting that guy to grab a uniform and call it "my precious!"