Sunday, March 18, 2007

Why do we need movie critics?

Peter Bart in describes the disconnect between the opinions of movie critics and the viewing public that has made "300", a historical drama about the battle of Thermopylae, a runaway hit:

Box office data this year suggests that filmgoers seem to be having a great time at the multiplexes. The critics, by contrast, may be shopping around for a new line of work.

In reviewing "300" last week, for example, A.O. (Tony) Scott of the New York Times, said the movie was "as violent as 'Apocalypto' and twice as stupid."

That comment reflected the consensus among critics not only on "300" but also on "Ghost Rider," "Wild Hogs," "Norbit" and the other movie miscreants unleashed on the public since Oscar time.
The reviews of "300" remind us that the literature of disdain is much more fun to turn out. Scott, the Times critic, for example, predicted that the movie would become "an object of camp derision," and would appeal mainly to "devotees of the pectoral, deltoid and other fine muscle groups."

Kenneth Turan"s review in the Los Angeles Times, basically a prolonged wince, also noted that "300" was "Apocalypto" violent," adding, "There is a limit to how often you can see soldiers speared and hacked to death and still stay involved."

Perhaps, but the first week"s "involvement" totaled some $70 million at the box office.

I stopped taking critics seriously after seeing "Pulp Fiction" at their behest. I saw "300" on opening day and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a gory spectacle no doubt, but it taps into themes that ordinary people crave and critics despise. Themes like patriotism and manly virtue. The main character, King Leonidas of Sparta played by Gerard Butler, is not complicated. He loves his people, his wife, his state, and he will fight to protect them from tyrany and slavery in spite of the objections of priests and politicians. So there is little suspense about how the story will unfold.

The tale is narrated by one of the soldiers at the battle, Dilios, played by David Wenham. The surreal, exaggerated nature of the battle scenes is best understood as a recreation in the imagination of a young Spartan hearing the tale from Delios as he recounts it from memory. The Persian soldiers are bizarre and exotic, their war beasts are enormous. Elephants are 50 feet tall. The King of Persia, Xerxes, is a strangely effeminate giant who towers over Leonidas, both seductive and repellant in his splendid decadence. The movie presents both history and myth, a point that none of the critics grasped.

In that respect it has something in common with another movie that came out this year that did gain much critical acclaim as well as three Academy Awards, "Pan's Labrynth". I also saw Pan's Labrynth and have to say that it is much deserving of the acclaim, which shows that critics can actually get it right sometimes.

Update: John Podhoretz reviews "300" in The Weekly Standard, and echoes some of the same things I mentioned, as well as describing what 300's runaway success portends for the future of Hollywood:
Because the actors are unimportant, Zack Snyder received no pressure from a top-of-the-line star to adjust his script to make his heroes more attractive, more modern, and more politically correct. There's no way that a Brad Pitt could have played Snyder's Leonidas. The part would have been altered to ensure Pitt got to deliver a speech bemoaning the tragic cost of war. No Spartan would have delivered such a speech, of course, but if Brad Pitt is your Spartan, he's going to insist on it.

And here's why 300 is going to be revolutionary. Snyder and his collaborators had the same storytelling freedom enjoyed by Disney and Pixar and other animators whose films are primarily intended for children. They do not have to satisfy the desires of in-demand actors who want always to appear sympathetic, to act in ways that will not offend core audiences, and to get all the best lines and the best scenes in the script. In a partially animated, partially live-action film, the performers are relegated to a secondary status that liberates moviemakers from the Hollywood power structure, in which stars hold the cards.

In animated features, the story is king--and the stories that work are ones with clear moral conflicts in which flawed characters are called upon to sacrifice for the greater good. Stars don't like playing characters with flaws, or characters from different times whose views on social matters don't conform to our own. If semi- animated pictures aimed not at kids but at adult moviegoers now really take flight because of 300's smashing success, the future will not be so bright for Hollywood's star system. But it will give adventurous moviemakers some room to breathe free.

Anything that takes Brad Pitt out of the loop is alright by me.


Blogger Ali Choudhury said...

If you watch as many movies as critics do, your tastes are bound to diverge from the general public's.

I just ask my peers what they thought of particular release and decide to go depending on how good the general level of feedback is.

March 18, 2007 10:14 AM  
Blogger Pam Shirkey said...

I stopped reading critics when they almosr universally panned Phantom of the Opera and its star Gerard Butler (an actor who takes risks and is passionate about his work). They almost robbed me of the glorious experience of seeing Phantom on a big screen in all its sumptious overblown magnificence. Loved your comments about the movie 300.

March 18, 2007 12:25 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks Pam! I saw enjoyed Phantom of the Opera also, and I can't imagine why they panned it. I didn't make the connection to Gerard Butler. I knew that I had seen him somewhere else.

March 18, 2007 1:01 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Saw it last night, in IMAX. The crowd on the street afterwards was pretty mixed, but all the young guys in it were whooping and hollering. We went home and I did 500 situps (okay, 20. But only one beer.) I can see why that would scare the beejaysus out of Roger Ebert.

March 18, 2007 2:37 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I liked Pulp Fiction so much that I once watched it three nights in a row.

March 18, 2007 2:56 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I really liked Pulp Fiction too.

But I've only watched it once - so far.

March 18, 2007 3:58 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Duck - Your comments are right on! I liked this movie a lot, and I noticed that with a majority of the movies I want to see the critics bash them almost as if they are bringing political views into which movies to support and which not.

March 18, 2007 9:21 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks Eric! Many critics say that the movie is not historically accurate, but if you ignore the surreal treatment the story actually toes the historical line in many respects. Here is an account of the battle from Wikipedia. The story of Dilios losing his eye and being sent back to Sparta is true. The prophecy of the oracle and the opposition of the priests is true. The ancient account also mentions the traitor Ephialtes, although his transformation into a deformed freak in the film can be chalked up to artistic license. The final assault that did in the Spartans with a rain of arrows is also accurate. And the words of Leonidas at the dawn of the last day of the battle when he said, "for tonight we dine in Hell" also agree with the ancient account.

March 19, 2007 7:49 AM  
Blogger erp said...

As is so often the case, Shakespeare said it best, The play's the thing . . .
--From Hamlet (II, ii, 633)

I hope you guys are right and this is a turning point in movie making.

March 20, 2007 6:57 AM  
Blogger David said...

Aren't there two different issues here? First, the role of the movie critic. Any hope the reviewer has of being a "critic" is dashed by his place in the system. One can't do a criticism worthy of the name in a thousand word essay published in a general interest newspaper before anyone has seen the movie. Like it or not, and the reviewers hate it, there only role is to point out movies worth seeing and movies best avoided. The internet has almost ended there usefulness, but one reason Ebert is so popular is that, regardless of his opinion, he usually manages to give enough honest information that the viewer can judge for himself. (On the other hand, have you ever noticed that Ebert invariably makes at least one factual mistake in each review. He might well have the worst attention span of any movie-goer older than three in the US.)

The other point is that reviewers are journalists first and, thus, leftward leaning. Like the rest of the media, they think that now is their time of destiny; they must yank the entire nation leftward before we elect another war-mongering Republican who will anger those misunderstood freedom fighters and bring on the coming "Waterworld" apocalypse.

March 20, 2007 12:18 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, that is a big part of it. Excessive violence didn't stop critics from loving "Kill Bill" or "Pulp Fiction". Maybe because the protagonists of these films were criminals, and lefties are fascinated by criminals. But for some reasons when regular people resort to violence to defend themselves it is an illegitimate theme for a movie.

March 20, 2007 1:17 PM  
Blogger David said...

I should also point out that, on the other hand, academic movie criticism is completely insufferable.

March 21, 2007 6:22 AM  
Blogger erp said...

We watched "Final Cut" last night and I practically stood up and cheered when FU made the suggestion that the world speak one language and that language be -- English, of course.

As the Woody Allen character said in "Annie Hall," ... don't you wish real life was like that.

March 21, 2007 9:06 AM  

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