Whatever its problems, and they are myriad, you can't say that Zack Snyder's 300 doesn't give you plenty to look at. Adapted from Frank Miller's and Lynn Varley's graphic novel, the film - which follow s the ancient Spartan army in a wildly violent, self-sacrificing battle against Persian forces - is filled with memorably outré images: an enormous tree and a 20-foot-high wall, both composed entirely of corpses; a triad of elephants, backed over a cliff, that plunge to their deaths; the sky blackening with what appear to be locusts, instead proving to be the incoming trajectory of thousands of steel-tipped arrows. In 300, Snyder shows a remarkable gift for graphic-novel composition, and continually keeps your eye engaged. Too bad the same can't be said of your brain.
It's fair to assume that this won't much bother the film's core audience; no one goes to an unsubtle bloodbath such as 300 for the wit. Yet I found the relentless carnage - with its excruciating dependence on slow motion - and digitally enhanced amber color schemes more exhausting than exhilarating, and after about an hour of CGI mayhem, I found my eyelids getting heavy; there's nothing to pay attention to but the visuals. During the months leading up to its release, nearly everyone I know had asked if I'd seen the film's trailer, which is a two-minute masterwork of brutally suggestive imagery. Watching 300 is just like watching the 300 trailer ... 60 times in a row.
Occasionally, the movie's narrative did allow me to snap back into consciousness, but only because I was expending energy trying not to laugh. I failed once, when I audibly giggled upon hearing the Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) make the priceless declaration, "Freedom is not free." (That's the opening chorus to my favorite song in Team America: World Police.) But I came close with the frequent shots of the amassed Spartan army, whose perfectly sculpted chests and leather loincloths suggest an open-casting call at Chippendale's; and with the hysterically bombastic voice-over narration, which is somehow more explicit than the film's violence; and with the arrival of the evil Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), whose electronically altered basso profundo voice seems looped in from another auditorium entirely, and who glares at the camera like Yul Brynner as a ticked-off drag queen. When it isn't wowing you with visual trickery, 300 is the most embarrassing kind of blockbuster: high camp that thinks it's high art.
God bless Gerard Butler for lending the film a modicum of style. Almost ridiculously forgettable in Joel Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera adaptation, Butler seems a perfect fit for this sort of iconic action-warrior role - his bellowing is legitimately impassioned - and he's not without a streak of ironic humor; he acts (and looks) like George Clooney's ass-kicking older brother, and forces you to take 300 more seriously than you may be inclined to. The movie also desperately needs him, as the other performers - including the usually sharp Dominic West - are lethargic to the point of somnolence. Prior to 300, Zack Snyder crafted 2004's zippy remake of Dawn of the Dead. At least those zombies knew how to move.
Much as I try to stay caught up at the cineplex, new releases do occasionally slip by me, and, as the ones I skip tend to stick around no longer than a couple of weeks, I generally feel no guilt about letting them pass. (This year, I've already opted out of attending - and reviewing - Blood & Chocolate, Arthur & the Invisibles, and Code Name: The Cleaner. Has anyone noticed the loss?) But Michael Apted's historical drama Amazing Grace has been kicking around the area for a while now, and, it turns out, for reason: it's pretty damned terrific.
A biographical examination of the 18th Century reformer William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) - who spent most of his long career in Parliament attempting to abolish the British empire's slave-trade practices - Apted's film is serious and sincere, an inspiring testament to courage, determination, and righteousness. In short, it sounds like a drag. (Which is exactly why I shied away from it for so long.)
What I hadn't anticipated, though, was just how rousing an entertainment it would be, which has to account for the film's unexpected area longevity. (Even in its third weekend, Saturday's matinée performance was impressively well-attended.) You enter Amazing Grace expecting it to be good for you. Instead, it's just plain good. Though the film is saddled with an unnecessarily convoluted chronology, and the slavery issue itself remains naggingly abstract - aside from the character of former slave Oloudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour) and a lightning-quick flash of mining fatalities, there are no people of color on-screen - Apted brings momentum and zeal to the material, and it's cast about as beautifully as you could want.
There may be no character trait harder to play than saintliness, which makes Gruffudd's performance all the more laudatory; his wide-eyed earnestness is suffused with intelligence and charm, yet he's not afraid to show how unwavering nobility can teeter dangerously close to madness. It's a smart, shrewd portrayal, and the actor is backed by a rather extraordinary assemblage of talent: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, and the perennially exquisite Michael Gambon and Albert Finney all take turns stealing the picture. Amazing Grace has an important story to tell but doesn't shove its import down the audience's throats, and by its climax, you may find yourself shocked at how moved you are. Here's hoping - if you, too, were hesitant about attending - that it sticks around long enough to shock plenty of others.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN
Man, how I wish that Black Snake Moan were more enjoyable than it is! Everything about the film - the title, the setup, the sight of a ferocious Christina Ricci in a cut-off T-shirt and panties (and sometimes less) - promises nasty-good fun, but writer/director Craig Brewer appears only marginally interested in the knowingly lurid possibilities of the material; he chains Ricci to a radiator in order to save her soul.
A two-hour morality fable in exploitation-flick drag, Brewer's Hustle & Flow follow-up has a vibrant deep-South atmosphere and is never less than engaging - you're dying to see where this lunatic material can possibly go. But it's saddled with clunky exposition and even clunkier character types (poor S. Epatha Merkerson has nothing to play but decency), and while his barking continues to entertain, Samuel J. Jackson never reaches the soulful depths the character must reach for the script to make sense, and plays his former blues guitarist without a hint of musicality. (Perhaps ironically, Justin Timberlake fares much better as an Army inductee with a weak constitution.) In the end, Ricci's fearless performance and the marvelous blues soundtrack only serve to pump up a glorified series of Sunday-school lessons: Be Good to Others, Pray Before Supper, Don't Cheat on Your Boyfriend. Who would have thought that Black Snake Moan would wind up only slightly less conventional than Amazing Grace?