Wednesday, 12 September 2007

DVD: 300

Lowdown: The good few beat the crap out of the evil many.
Review:
As hype goes, not much can exceed that which has been revolving around 300. Described as anything from “battle of the bulges” to “the first blockbuster of the year”, it was one of those must see films. And then there were arguments on what it is that it was trying to say.
Well, what the film has to say is said mostly through the mouth of David Wenham, whose talents are wasted on yet another film that requires nothing in the way of acting. Set in ancient Greek Empire BC times, Wenham tells us the story of Leonidas, the king of Sparta. Forged by the, well, very Spartan educational system they’ve been deploying there at the time, this guy was a mean warring machine. So when the Persians drop by with some million soldiers and decide it’s a nice idea to conquer Greece, you can trust Leo to have a thing or two to say about this.
On one hand, Leo has a lovely wife and both walk around naked at home in what may be very Spartan like manner but is definitely not very much like American movies like manners; the directors must have given up on child friendly ratings rather early for this one, given the abundance of CGI blood. On the other hand, Leo is impeded through traitors in his midst, which do not allow him to send his army to face the Persians.
Instead, Leo assembles a group of 300 volunteers, the crème de la crème of Spartan cubed abdomens, and off they go on what is surely a suicide mission to stop the Persians. They make their stand at a narrow pathway the Persians have to cross in order to enter Greece, and from then on the film follows the ensuing battles between Greeks and Persians.
And battle they do, in a very Matrix like style, against a multitude of enemies. These start with normal men but move through mutants, immortals and all sorts creatures of fantasy. There are even enemies wielding hand grenades, although nothing as effective as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The key element here is that everything is larger than life, reaching its peak with the king of the Persians, Xerxes (interestingly enough, “Xerxes” is the Greek version of the guy’s name; his Persian mother didn’t call him by that name, which goes to show that Hollywood history is written with a pro-winner orientation in mind). Xerxes is made to look like a huge statue carrying more bling on him that an entire group of rappers. It all goes with the trend of the film, which accentuates everything and portrays the Spartans as the ultimate good facing the ultimate evil. However, one cannot escape the feeling that given the way certain characters and certain situations are portrayed, this is all done with one big wink in mind; otherwise, one would have a hard time explaining why Sparta is made to look very dreary and why all the characters seem to come directly from a Playgirl centerfold.
This leads me to the main discussion point out of 300, the good vs. evil element. While we should all be very thankful for the Spartan way of life dying with Sparta, the film keeps on praising it. The screenplay sounds as if it was written by George Bush, a notion that in no doubt is aided by Bush like phrases such as “axis of evil” and “if you’re not with us you’re against us”. This goes so far that it becomes the main thing you take off the film, but it goes far enough to make you think that it’s either a case of really stupid filmmakers or extreme sarcasm at work. Me? I’d pick the second option.
Best scene:
It’s not the fight scenes that are best remembered here, even though they can be quite spectacular, albeit too heavy on CGI for their own good (you get the feeling they just had the actors standing there doing all sorts of movements, with their weapons and their crushed enemies added later on a programmer’s PC).
No, the main events in 300 are the various Bush like catch phrases. They’re so funny they can kill you if you’re not careful. And the peak scene is when dusk sets on the battlefield after the first day, and Leo and his merry men stand there contemplating Spartan philosophy (read: exchanging George Bush like phrases) while Leo is eating an apple that seems to have come out of nowhere.
Which leads me to make my usual movie complaint: Nowhere in the film do you see a roll of toilet paper being used, a water container being carried, or supplies being delivered. Surely this is why the Spartans ultimately lost.
Picture quality: One of the things unique to 300 is its looks. It’s all shot in very high contrast and it all has a sepia tint to it. All the sets have this gloomy, bland look to them, naked of anything warm or growing. It is unique, but ultimately it is one of the reasons why 300 cannot be counted among those epic films of the Gladiator or even Troy caliber; it’s just a minor epic instead. Technically speaking, the look also makes it very hard to pass judgment on the DVD’s picture quality; let’s just settle things by saying it’s unique.
Sound quality: This is what films should be like – aggressive (and unsettling, as Dylan may venture) through and through, but with good fidelity while at it. If anything, this one could and should have been even more aggressive.
Overall: On one hand, 300 is spectacular viewing, no doubt about it. On the other hand it is a very bad movie: it doesn’t take long for you to anxiously wait the next gem to come out of the actors’ mouths in support of the “we’re so good and pure of heart” vs. the “they are just so evil and they’re not that good looking and they don’t have cubes on their abdomens” motif.
So what do I make of it? I think 300 is a film so bad it is actually good fun in that campy Priscilla Queen of the Desert kind of a way. I’m not sure it was designed to make you laugh, but I have found it to work better than most comedies; its epic and fantastic touches didn’t hurt, either.
3.5 out of 5 stars.

15 comments:

Wicked Little Critta said...

I just watched this a couple of weeks ago.
Unlike you, I enjoyed 300, and not because I got laughs out of it. Personally, I didn't feel as though Sparta was "ultimate good." I mean, how good can a society be that practices infanticide and trains it's children to be killing machines?
I'll agree that a lot of the fighting was glorified, but I found that to be useful in giving the audience an idea about the Spartan way.
I also don't know how much this movie was supposed to "mean" outside of its own story. For me, it was an interesting peek into (what may have been) the mentality of Spartans.
As usual, a much different take on the same movie. :) Glad you reviewed it, though.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I don't think the film had much to do with the real Spartan way of life. As I have said, Spartans had to wipe their behinds after doing the toilet run, prepare food, and weave clothes most of the day - like the rest of humanity at the time. Spartans also had slaves and such, the main problem with humanity at the time. I can continue listing issues, but if 300 is your way of getting in touch with Sparta then Huston, we have a problem... I’m not criticizing you here, because I won’t be getting nearer to Sparta myself. I’m just pointing at the probable fact that most people will not think any further about Sparta after watching the film, and that’s potentially dangerous.
As for meaning, if there is any to be taken out of 300 I suspect it is to do with the battle between reason and mysticism (portrayed by the rather fetish Persians being ruled with a dude who thinks he's a god). However, as much as the side of reason is glorified, so it is also portrayed as barren and devoid of any human warmth.

Moshe Reuveni said...

P.S.
You can also argue that Americans are training their children to be killing machines. I believe the US army is the strongest killing machine the world has ever seen.
My point is that this way of looking at things ("how good can a society be that practices infanticide and trains it's children to be killing machines?") works both ways.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Regarding the issue of Spartans killing their inadequate babies, it left me wondering: Back at those times, people with physical or mental disabilities probably didn't stand much of a chance anyway. We look back at them from our 21st century's point of view and say "oh, how horrible those Spartans must have been", but the reality is that they lived in a very different world to ours (a world without toilet paper).
You can find some recent examples for such attitudes in the not that distant past: H. G. Wells, the famous author, who is a celebrated character, has also said - around 100 years ago - that Jews and Orientals and blacks are sub-human. Now the attitudes have changed (and we also have science to tell us that racial differences are extremely subtle and often reflect the diseases that prevailed in certain areas); but back then people thought nothing of being racists. So little did they think of it that Hitler has had some pretty fertile ground to work on...

Wicked Little Critta said...

You really need to let go of this "no toilet paper" thing.

But seriously, you're nearly impossible to please. Do you really think that 300 needed to show the poor toilet facilities and people eating breakfast? Do we need to see people walking around Sparta wearing signs that say "slave?" Is that the only way we can glean something meaningful?

It's only a movie, and I think that a lot of viewers probably knew nothing about Sparta beforehand anyway. So that's dangerous? To know more about history than one did previously? Yes, clearly there is more to Sparta than what 300 shows us, and many will take it at face value. In my opinion, those people that see 300 and assume that everything in the movie is true, and that there's nothing else to the story, were just as "potentially dangerous" in the first place.

In the end, the story is a fascinating one, and I think that 300 gets the major points right regarding what Sparta was and how Spartans lived (based on the little I know of Sparta.)

Wicked Little Critta said...

And regarding infanticide, I think that it's safe to assume that back in those days, it wasn't considered as horrible as we see it now. However, I still think that it supports my point that Spartans aren't completely glorified as the "ultimate good" in 300.

Moshe Reuveni said...

The toilet paper joke comes from Seinfeld. George was a big fan of toilet paper. It's also one of the few things I've learnt from the Da Vinci Code book, because he explains there how the left hand was reserved for toilet duties: according to Wikipedia, people used to use leaves before the days of the toilet paper (circa 150 years ago). Thing is, in European winter there were no leaves around...

I agree with you that "it's only a movie". 300 was never meant to be taken seriously; it's a pretty stupid film. I also agree with you about killing babies, and I have also agreed with you about the Spartans not being totally glorified (I've mentioned several times that Sparta seems a pretty desolate place).
What I don't agree with you about has to do with what people take home about Sparta after watching the film. Yes, those that think Sparta was as the movie shows were ignorant to begin with, but my problem with the films that pretend to be based on historical facts but are pretty loosely based (and, for that matter, other media that does it - books etc) is that by doing what they are doing they fertilize the ground for ignorance.
I know it's corny, coming out of me, but it's like religion: if everyone around you is a believer and the general atmosphere nourishes it, you will have a much easier time suspending the doubt and falling into believing in something that is totally unsubstantiated.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Ok, that's fine...but what is the alternative?
I feel that film and media can be a very effective way to communicated and educate. And let's face it, there will be a lot more people watching 300 than going to their local library to learn about the Battle at Thermopylae. I feel like this is a cup half empty vs. half full conversation: you see loose representations of historical stories as misleading, whereas I see them as informative and thought-provoking.

As far as I'm concerned, if I see a film that is based on historical events or true stories, watching them motivates me to further research the subject, and question the details of the film representing it. But that could be just me.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're right but with your library inclined attitude you're at a minority.
What I would prefer is that the ratio of accuracy to fiction is changed in favor of accuracy; but I realize that could rob the fun away, and worse, that it would rob us from using fiction as an analogy.
Therefore, what I would better prefer is for the film to point out that it is fictitious. That is not hard to do, and 300 could have easily managed it.
Besides, the truth tends to exceed our wildest imagination. Show me someone who would have thought the universe is 14 billion years old 150 years ago, or someone who would have imagined just how vast it is and just how many stars like our sun are out there?
My point is, if there was a will there, there could have been a way to make things better. But there is no will but the will to make money, and in such a world your assumptions prevail.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I will, however, add fuel to the fire: what if someone was to create a film where the Holocaust is said to be an imaginative event; maybe not directly, but just by some extra German glorification. What would the current world of ours make of that?
I know I'm presenting a very extreme case here, and I know I don't have a proper answer as to how much reality should be twisted in favor of entertainment. I do think, however, that we're currently erring way too much to the side of "mysticism".

Wicked Little Critta said...

Ok, so could you explain to me how the filmmakers could easily point out the aspects of the film that are fictitious?

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're right and I don't have the answers to all questions.
By definition, making the film emphasize its fictitious nature would result in a different film. One way they could have done it is to reduce the repetitions of the "Sparta is the land of the free mantra" and instead show Sparta for what it really was, but then the result wouldn't be as funny or as surreal. Another way would be to avoid calling it Sparta in the first place and use some imaginary concept instead, as per Chronicles of Riddick. Again, the result wouldn't be the same (although it could be close), and you certainly have a point there.
Still, I will always have a problem with such films. When Starship Troopers, which is obviously a film that uses Nazi connotations in order to point at modern day fascism, is hailed by most viewers as a kick ass action film where we crash some evil bugs, you know the world is in a mess and people fail to get the point.

Wicked Little Critta said...

You don't have the answers to all questions!?!
Shoot! I've been wasting my time here. ;)

Moshe Reuveni said...

No shooting, please.

Moshe Reuveni said...

But just in case the serious answer is what you're looking for:
Our problem, or at least mine, in the above case is ignorance. As in, taking the film's word for what Sparta was really like.
The solution to ignorance is education.