Thursday, March 29, 2007

300


300 is one of the most over-the-top, testosterone-fueled thrill rides ever assembled, and it never once contemplates being anything else. This unwavering commitment to its agenda is the main reason it works. This film isn’t about profound truths, philosophy, or even history; this is a film about legendary battles, and the manly men who fought them. Many films founder in their presentations of ancient tales. Troy (2004), for example, never made up its mind as to whether it was going to be historically accurate or true to Greek mythology, and the result was a watered-down, poorly-written Iliad gone wrong. 300 has both feet firmly planted in the mythological realm, complete with bizarre creatures, impossible fight scenes, and plenty of muscles to spare.

Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, 300 does have a historical basis. Set in 480 B.C., the film chronicles the battle of Thermopylae, in which a small Grecian force stood bravely against the vast numbers of the advancing Persian Empire. In the film, King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler - yes, he DID play the Phantom of the Opera) refuses to submit to the will of the Persian King Xerxes. Taking a stand for Spartan freedom, he leads a small band of 300 men against 1,000,000 Persian soldiers.

Many will likely condemn this film for being too simple-minded and chauvinistic, but I’m not sure those are fair criticisms. This film does great justice to the graphic novel, and the graphic novel does justice to the legend. Every aspect of this movie rejoices in a time when honor and glory were completely tied into violence. The truth of that time period may be exaggerated here, but so be it. The men in this story all look and act like He-Man on steroids, and such unapologetic storytelling works when relaying ancient myth. Many comic book adaptations feel the need to make their stories more believable and realistic, but 300 absolutely brings Miller’s fanciful illustrations to life.

The visual style of this film echoes Sin City, one of the true masterpieces of the genre. Both movies were filmed almost entirely indoors, using blue screens and plenty of computer-generated manipulation. 300 is strangely beautiful and glorious to behold, even in its most violent moments. Movies have the ability to show us wonderfully imagined fantasy worlds, though some directors terribly misuse visual effects. Computer animation isn’t always the best option, but I think 300 demonstrates CG effects at their best. If 300 had been filmed traditionally, the inherent silliness of the story would have probably shone through and robbed the adaptation of its potential. By literally painting the backgrounds of every frame, the filmmakers successfully set the stage for the fantastic.

Both the screenplay and the performances help hold the movie together. All actors take the material seriously, which helps us do the same. Many moments are almost cheesy, but the script walks the line successfully in capturing the grandeur of antiquity without being downright goofy. The battle of Thermopylae has been an inspiring underdog story for centuries, and while this film has inspiring moments, it ultimately trades inspiration for style. There’s nothing here to equal William Wallace’s speeches in Braveheart or even the more heartfelt moments in The Lord of the Rings, but 300 thoroughly entertains. It’s exciting, intriguing, and visually captivating, all of which are trademarks of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Comic book adaptations typically fail or succeed before production ever begins, because the art direction and presentation style usually make or break such movies, just as they do most comic books. The filmmakers of 300 created the perfect setting, and everything else settled into place.

Many will probably complain about all the things this movie isn’t, but let’s be reasonable. No, I wouldn’t recommend using 300 as a citable source for a scholarly paper, but watching it wouldn’t be a bad way to kick-back and relax once you've turned that paper in.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

There’s a crucial exchange roughly halfway through Pan’s Labyrinth. A mother tries desperately to explain to her young daughter that fairy tales don’t exist and that real life doesn’t play out like the books her daughter constantly reads. Unfortunately, the mother has it wrong. She means to say that real life has struggles and difficulties. To most hardened adults, fairy tales are seen as perfect fantasies in which no characters ever feel pain or fear, the good guys always win, and the princess lives happily ever after. Children know better.

Fairy tales reflect more of life’s dark side than many adults realize. Walt Disney’s films have been terrifying children for years, and those stories are the watered-down stuff; go back and read the original texts of your favorite fairy tales, and you may be very surprised at what you find. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, two worlds collide as a young girl finds herself trapped in a ferociously violent Fascist Spain, as well as in an equally deadly fantasy realm.

I can almost guarantee that you’ve never seen a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth. The film soars as a period piece, a fantasy, and a rich human drama. The film’s fantasy sequences are absolutely breathtaking, but the majority of the story unfolds in a very-real Spain, 1944, where fascism rules with an iron fist. A young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), moves to a war-ridden town with her pregnant mother who has just married the violent, monstrous Captain Vidal (Sergi L√≥pez). Confronted with the horrors of war around her, Ofelia soon finds herself the subject of an amazing fantasy adventure. Once Ofelia’s family is asleep, a mythical faun informs her of her true identity as a princess and gives her three very special tasks to complete in order to return to her kingdom.

I was expecting to be impressed by fanciful visuals, but I was not prepared to be sufficiently creeped out. The film borders on horror throughout, and the sequences set in the harsh reality of Spain are brutally violent. I found myself looking away on multiple occasions as defenseless prisoners were shot, tortured, or ruthlessly beaten to death. Part of what is so remarkable about del Toro’s film is the way the fantasy sequences are completely different from the real-world scenes, yet equally important and equally dangerous. Ofelia risks her life in completing every one of the tasks, and del Toro makes that danger real for the audience. The film succeeds as a solid drama, both inside the fantasies and out.

The character palette remains surprisingly rich. There are people on both extreme ends of the good/evil spectrum, yet there are also plenty of supporting characters in the middle that flesh out the story, not the least of which is the faun (Doug Jones). The faun is a remarkably realized character, and seeing him in this film is more than enough to prove the lasting power of “old school” makeup and visual effects techniques. In today’s computer-generated age, the faun resonates with an authenticity that only an actual actor in a costume can provide.

Many have hailed this film as a fairy tale for grown-ups, and it does successfully reintroduce adults to the idea of finding fear and wonder in imagined worlds. It’s probably more horrific than even the harshest fairy tales, but the film has just enough light to keep it from being completely depressing. Most fairy tales have morals, and while Pan’s Labyrinth certainly has them, del Toro chooses to not state them outright. We make up our own minds about what we are seeing, right down to whether or not Ofelia’s fantasies are real. Also, most fairy tales end either happily or tragically, and the story’s moral typically stems from one of those two endings. Without giving anything away, del Toro manages to somehow pull-off two endings in one. The film’s finale is both devastating and joyous in equal measures.

Guillermo del Toro has shown great promise and style throughout his career, but he’s never had material as good as this. He directed Hellboy and Blade 2, both of which are engaging fantasies in certain aspects, but Pan’s Labyrinth can easily be called del Toro’s crowning achievement to date. The film resonates strongly with the love and care that can so often be felt when writers direct their own material. Pan’s Labyrinth is frightening, mysterious, entrancing, and visionary. The film succeeds on a rare level for such movies, because the remarkable visuals serve the story and the characters, instead of the other way around. Pan’s Labyrinth is undoubtedly one of the year’s best, most original, and most memorable films.