Before heading out of town for spring break, I took in a movie for the first time in months, a showing of 300 at the Bridge Cinema de Lux IMAX down by LAX. The ironic thing about first year film school is that you have no time to go see any movies. Every one expects film school students to be up on every movie, but I had to ask friends about what was good and out in theaters. The flick with the most buzz was the Frank Miller comic book adaptation.
For my sleep-deprived brain, it was perhaps a suitable film, the cinematic equivalent of a lava lamp. If that sounds like damnation with faint praise, well...
The visuals are occasionally beautiful, but I was driven insane by the huge number of shots that were out of focus. Perhaps the IMAX screen put the soft focus in boldface, but one of my classmates, a cinematography student, also noticed it. $60 million may be what passes for a small budget for an action film these days, but it's plenty to afford some better focus pullers. Was the soft focus a result of post-production?
An example is a close-up of Dominic West just before he introduces Lena Headey to the, uh, business end of his spear. It's a by the shoulder shot angled up at West's Theron, and his face is totally blurry. In another shot early in the movie, a close-up of Leonidas, it's his ears that are sharp in focus while his eyes are soft. I tried to look at his eyes, but the focus kept pulling my eyes away, to the edges of the frame.
The characters are as flat as the comic book pages from which they were pulled, the most depth any of them displays being the grooves demarcating each of their ab muscles. Gerard Butler has a good face, but the most he can do with a thin part is to shout his lines with the CAPS LOCK button depressed. THIS IS SPARTA! COME AND GET THEM! TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL! TAKE FROM THEM EVERYTHING! THIS IS WHERE THEY DIE! The characters don't travel in arcs in this film; they are launched fully formed out of a cannon, weapon in hand, ready to behead the first head they encounter. Leonidas and his queen Gorgo are defiant, start to finish.
The film is tinted, not just with a gorgeous amber and red palette but also with more than a hint of racism. I don't have much of an issue with the skin color as that may be historically accurate, but the movie has no qualms with exaggeration to emphasize the filmmakers' distaste for the enemy. Xerxes is not only given heavy eyeshadow, but he has no eyelight or pupils. His voice sounds like it was run through the "drag queen reverb" filter. Xerxes' elite fighting force of Immortals wear dramatic tragedy masks that, when removed, reveal hideous, deformed faces. What race of people are they supposed to be? Xerxes' army also employs a series of horrific freaks, including a massive blob of a man with massive knives for forearms and a 10 foot beast of a man whom tosses Spartans around like rag dolls. The traitor Ephialtes is, not surprisingly, a hunchback. Meanwhile, a glimpse inside the Persian tents reveals a nonstop series of beheadings and orgies.
Many movies choose good-looking actors to play the heroes and more hideous ones to play the baddies, but a bit of nuance would have helped the story to rise above its pulp comic book roots. But none of this seems to matter much as the unique visual look of the trailer and strong word of mouth have launched it to the top of the 2007 box office list. On IMDb right now, 300 is ranked number 214 all time based on user ratings. 214 all time, ahead of movies like Rififi, The Lost Weekend, and Dial M for Murder, and just a hair behind movies like Scarface, Bonnie and Clyde, and High and Low.
What worries me is the thought that director Zack Snyder might paint his next movie project with the same black and white broad brush strokes. That project is Watchmen, and it's ten times the graphic novel that 300 was.