300 – It’s oddly refreshing when a movie delivers on most of the things you think it’s going to be. It’s as stentorian and testosterone-fueled as the trailers promised. The battle scenes feature as much meat-grinding, and the quiet scenes as much earnest bonding brotherhood, as the elaborate visuals will bear. And, as a bonus, it’s a true story! If you wanted it, you got it. If you weren’t interested in the first place, you didn’t bother anyway.
So, I suppose it’s not really right to criticize this movie too much. Frank Miller aficionados were, I suspect, very happy. History buffs, while grumbling over the usual Hollywood liberties (and liberties, in this case, is a kind word), were still thinking ‘Yeah, but it’s Thermopylae, man!’ I even have to admit that the computerized visual scheme, for the most part, served the story and characters well (the CGI was what I most dreaded, but once you get used to the fact that every single Spartan has had the exact same greased, sweaty, heaving pectorals and six-pack composited onto them in each and every frame – well, OK, once you notice you don’t get used to it – it’s pretty weird). There was a conspicuous absence of that annoying, blurry, super-speedy jump-cut editing that threatens to screw up otherwise admirable fare like Batman Begins or the Bourne movies. In fact, director Zack Snyder, via his canny CGI guys, actually makes a point to slow things down – slow motion, freeze-framing, stop-and-start strobing, stealing Matrix-like ideas without everything looking like the goddamn Matrix. Wide shots are meticulously choreographed – three or four things happen in the same shot and you can actually absorb it all. Visually, I was sold.
So here are my two complaints. The Lena Headey-Dominic West “Meanwhile, back in Sparta…” intrigues seem to have been directed by phone. The dullest kind of soap-opera exposition, generically designed and indifferently shot. Both of these actors have been really good pretty often – they seem to have been left to their own devices here, and it ain’t art, my friends.
My other, larger complaint I’ll refer to as The Phantom Menace Syndrome. Remember, if you will (if you actually sat through that celluloid dead fish) how in the first third of the movie, Ewan and Liam ( or Obi-Wan and whatever the hell…) effortlessly plowed through hundreds and hundreds of storm troopers, mercenaries, and various forms of robot artillery effortlessly, unscathed. But What’s This…?? Darth Maul!! And suddenly, for no other reason besides That’s What The Script Says, Obi-Wan and Whatever are battling for their very lives. Huh? What happened to those two badasses we saw before? A riddle for the ages, apparently. And one our pal Zack Snyder has no answer for as well, since these same Spartans chew up and spit out whatever comes near them until It’s The Part In The Script Where They Get Killed. Then sons die, makeup runs, all the arrows magically missing everyone suddenly land, and Voila – Gotterdammerung! And they seemed to be doing so well…
Children Of Men – another film with a lot of admirable things going on, delivering on many of the promises of the trailers and media hype. The reliable Clive Owen is practically in every shot of the film, and he owns it. Very compelling story, many humanist elements expressed without over-earnestness or preaching. Particular supporting characters are given room to breathe and do much more than just fill functions.
So here are my two complaints. For me, Julianne Moore is a pro who can generally leave an impression even when she isn’t given much to do. I can’t decide whether A) this time the character was such an empty functionary plot device (the ex-wife turned resistance fighter tugging Clive’s regretful heartstrings while leading a ragtag band of devoted blah blah blah…) that she just got up and did it without breaking a sweat (and there are many detractors who assert this is often Julianne’s M.O.) or B) some good work was served up, filmed, and then edited out.
Because this movie was designed, shot, lit, and edited within an inch of its life. Which is complaint #2. For me, the film eventually devolved into not much more than a parade of Alphonso Cuaron’s Cool Shots. Lots of long, hyperkinetic tracking shots through all sorts of post-apocalyptic terrain and adversaries. Lots of steadicam zipping along with the cars, running along with Clive – which are all very compelling when they serve the story you’re telling. The movie this eventually most reminded me of was Black Hawk Down, which obviously presented a whole different tone than the one this one would seem to be aiming for. We needed a little less How Bad Things Have Gotten and and a little more Here’s What They’re Doing About It.