All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

November 16, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Mike Gillis

I suppose it’s odd I’m here chatting about “300” on the day “Beowulf” is being released theatrically. “300” is so yesterday and not even in 3-D.

But that’s exactly the problem with “300” and probably, eventually, with “Beowulf”. Pictures are made to titillate — with sex, violence, language or technology — not to stand up to time.

Looking back at the the reviews collected for “300” on metacritic.com, the top two, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Film Threat, respectively, both give the picture high marks for its technical achievement.

That’s the bar. Many other reviews give the picture points for its visuals, knocking it a bit for its testosterone take on the famous Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans staved off thousands of Persians. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated, which makes the film and its graphic novel counterpart by Frank Miller a bit disingenuous.

Who cares. It’s a sword and sandals picture meant to entertain, not teach. I get that.

And truth be told, it’s a stunner to watch. The battle sequences are sometimes breathtaking, the landscapes are stunning and the villains are as nasty as any. All the more impressive, I suppose, because the whole picture was shot against a blue screen and the sets added by computer later.

To be honest, I hadn’t really been interested in watching “300”, but had to test out a new sound system, and once in the thick of the action, I fell for it. But something else happened: I had also tested out my sound system with a brief viewing of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Peter Jackson’s epic take on the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and realized while watching the opening battle sequence, which was also created in a computer, that it already feels outdated. Not the movie, but the technology. Not quite like comparing it to a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but you begin to see the machinery at work because the “wow” has worn off.

Then comes “300” and we’re “wowed” again. And then “Beowulf.”

Is that the only test of a movie these days? It’s technical advancements?

Of course not. There are still plenty of great, little pictures being churned out every year. The best of them seldom get the attention they deserve, but they exist, and that’s good. Some of them even embrace the digital future in the best possible way. A scene would look better with a tree in the background? Add one. I guarantee no one will notice the trickery.

I’m not a crank fed up with the bells and whistles of movie making, but what’s happened to the epic? Where are the “Rans” or even the “Glorys“?

Watching a few scenes of “300” again, I know it will suffer the same fate as most of the “technical achievement”s before it. It has the benefit of two fine performances — Gerard Butler as King Leonidas and Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo — but it is beyond me how it survives the test of time.

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Stop Time, Change Directors?

August 17, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Mike Gillis

I’m not sure when I first stumbled upon Nicholson Baker’s “The Fermata”, a pulp-novel premise dressed up as literature, but I do recall enjoying it quite a bit. It’s a sordid little tale about a thirty-something temp worker who can stop time at will and often satisfies an urge to undress women in stasis. This guilty pleasure of a book is a bit more complicated and the protagonist avoids using his temporal control for evil gain.

No summary of a Nicholson novel — or essay — does the work justice. Baker’s prose is the real joy. It’s simply among the best contemporary examples of the craft. Baker also has a gift of exploring the human psyche in very frank, simple and revelatory ways, often spending pages of exquisite exposition on otherwise banal matters.

Baker has long been one of my favorite modern writers but I’ve wondered how well any of his works would translate to film.

It seems we may soon find out.

Author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, who penned a script for the “The Fermata” some years back, was recently quoted as saying advances in special effects, particularly those used in Robert Zemeckis’s upcoming “Beowulf,” may convince the director the time is right to set up a lens for Baker’s book.

Although “The Fermata” is arguably the most “filmable” of Baker’s ouevre, I’m skeptical Zemeckis. I just can’t picture Tom Hanks in the lead, undressing still-life women and having his way. It’s no secret I’m not a fan of the actor, who in the past wins too much praise for “daring” roles that are actually no risk to his career at all. (“Philadelphia” anyone?)

Perhaps I’m one of a handful of people who despise that Zemeckis and Hanks abomination, “Forrest Gump“. So be it. But there’s no way that formula — and formulaic approach — will help serve “The Fermata”.

I’m not sure how Zemeckis ended up with the project, but it likely had something to do with the book’s time on the bestseller list and the rave reviews that excused its cheap sci-fi set-up. Perhaps the director saw that reaction as a way to make a quasi sci-fi picture with some built-in critic proofing. Who knows.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

In the mean time, I’ll be waiting anxiously for Baker’s next book.

***


See a 1994 interview with Baker on the Charlie Rose Show here:

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docId=-6584518665961075811&hl=en

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