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My views on "300," and a Rant Against Relying on Critics (Blog)

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 27, 2007 | Publication: Rants and Ramblings | Author: Suresh
Source: Rants and Ramblings

Posted by: DaisyMay


Rants and Ramblings

Life in Chicago from the desk of a law student....
Monday, March 26, 2007
My views on "300," and a Rant Against Relying on Critics.

One of the many things that I find irritating (and the list is long and distinguished) is the emphasis that so many people place on the opinions of critics in our society. Art critics, film critics, music critics, food critics, wine critics…there seems to be a critic for every single aspect of our daily lives. Often, I suppose we look to these so called “experts” to help us make up our minds as we decide what to wear, what to see, what to do, and what to eat. Although I can appreciate a person’s desire to be well-informed, I cannot understand the implicit trust that we all seem to have on these virtual strangers and so-called trendsetters in society. It is almost as if we have all placed “checked at the door” signs on our brains. Can’t we make up our own minds without any help from strangers?

Critics have long been accused of being out of touch with society; I firmly believe that this is the case. For example, most food critics would turn their noses up at any of the fare from McDonald’s, yet this is the same institution that has served “billions and billions.” Can “billions and billions” be wrong? Many would scoff at this, saying that people only eat there because McDonald’s is cheap. Well, even if it is cheap, people would not eat there unless they enjoyed the taste of the food. This being “out of touch” with the rest of society (likes and dislikes, etc) extends everywhere.

Our implicit trust in critics has reached the point where most of us will take critics’ opinion at face value. How many times have you been at a party and, in the midst of a discussion on a film, someone interjects with the pithy phrase “I heard that film sucks.” It doesn’t matter whether or not that person has actually watched the film; the problem is that, in order to interject in a conversation about a film, they feel inclined to quote some nebulous “person” who “said” that the film sucks. I myself am not above checking out critical opinion, but I have learned over the years that I should not limit myself to the opinions of individual critics. For example, I enjoy reading Roger Ebert’s reviews and usually agree with him; however, Ebert did not like the film “The Usual Suspects,” a film that is in my top ten. If I had blindly followed his advice, I would have avoided the film to this day. Until recently, I feared that the moviegoing public was falling prey to the phenomenon of blindly following critics on the basis of the critics' “status” of purveyors of all that is critically worthy.

Times have changed, at least with regard to films.

When one looks at the top ten lists for the past few film releases, one should note that the top films were lambasted by the critics, but they proved to be critically immune. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Ghost Rider,” “Wild Hogs,” and “300”. Let me first discuss “Ghost Rider.” I had been looking forward to this film. It had a good cast and a director who seemed to have an appreciation for the character. Once the reviews started coming in, however, things looked bleak. My expectations for the film diminished to the point where it was no longer a “must see” film. I saw it with my brother, and I was able to appreciate it for what it was: a cool long trailer about a guy with a flaming skull head riding a flaming motorcycle. I was entertained because I was able to check my brain at the door and because films are all about entertainment, “Ghost Rider” succeeded for me. Were the performances good? No. Was the story compelling? Nope. Was it even faithful to the source material? HECK no! At the same time, this was a bit different than “Superman Returns” or “Batman Begins” in that I did not have the same connection to the Ghost Rider character that I have to Superman or Batman. That might have allowed me to enjoy the film more than the average fanboy. My point is that I was able to enjoy the film in spite of the negative criticism.


I believe that, over the years, the impact that the critics might have on the box office has been steadily diminishing. This was reflected in the fact that only one of the films nominated for best picture this year crossed the magical $100 million gross barrier that is essential to be considered a hit (although I suppose that the minimal gross nowadays is closer to $150 million thanks to inflation and the rising costs of film production). To date, “Ghost Rider” has grossed $113 million. “Wild Hogs” displaced “Ghost Rider” at the top of the box office charts; like “Ghost Rider”, “Wild Hogs” was critically panned. In spite of this, “Wild Hogs” has become what is coined a “surprise hit.” For the people who made it, its status was no surprise. I have not watched the film, but I have “heard” (ugh) that it is a really funny film that appeals to all the middle America folks, the people who love “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “Extreme Makeover Home Edition”, and “Home Improvement.” Would it be logical to believe that the critics from LA, Chicago, and New York have their finger on the pulse of what Middle America loves? Of course not! In 3 weeks, “Wild Hogs” has outgrossed the critical darling “The Departed” in less than a quarter of the time. The trend continues with “300”.

I watched “300” on the IMAX screen in Chicago, the same screen where I witnessed the “Superman Returns” swill from last summer. The critics had not been kind to the film before its release, using hackneyed descriptions like a “filmed video game” and “sword and sandals for the MTV set”. What was completely missing from their descriptions was the beauty of the film itself. The critics were so caught up in trying to tear down the film for what it wasn’t (a throwback to the halcyon Hollywood days of “Ben-Hur”) that they missed it for what it was: a piece of artwork brought to life in a new medium. Whenever genre films are made, fanboys and genre fans alike hold their collective breath. We were all worried when Peter Jackson, at the time best known for his colossal failure “The Frighteners”, announced a Lord of the Rings trilogy, but he created a masterpiece by not dumbing down the richness of the source material (as did the film version of “Eragon”, or what I like to call “Star Wars with Dragons”). The only note-perfect translation of a comic book that I have witnessed has been Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s “Sin City”, based upon Miller’s noir graphic novel of the same name. Rodriguez recreated the novel and translated it into the film medium using the innovative merging to digital bluescreen for the entire film. I think that critics loved it because it was noir and perhaps reminded them of some of their favorite films from childhood. They did not, however, dismiss the film as a video game shot on film.

Now we have “300”. This film has a rating of 61% on rottentomatoes.com, allowing it to qualify as “barely fresh.” This was a welcome change from the low ratings of “Wild Hogs” (17% fresh) and “Ghost Rider” (26% fresh), but it was still considered, at best, only marginally good. In my previous post, I described the source material (Frank Miller’s graphic novel) and the true story that it was based on. I was looking forward to this film (critics be damned). The film did not disappoint. What many critics casually disregarded as a “video game movie” has found a place in the cultural zeitgeist that surpasses even the harshest of criticisms. No one I spoke to had a bad thing to say about “300.” Gerard Butler is magnificent as the Spartan King Leonidas, and the supporting cast is wonderful. The film moves along quickly, and the battle scenes are interspersed with quieter scenes that inform on the political machinations and the background corruption that is present with the seers and with the Spartan city-state council. In addition to succeeding by way of a compelling story, the film succeeds as a work of art.

I am convinced that there is NO WAY that the filter effects, colors, and staging of the film could be replicated on a conventional soundstage. The embrace of a new medium (fully digital film with real actors) could have failed if the faith of the filmmaker was borne solely on the shoulders of razzle dazzle technology with a minimal emphasis on story and character development (witness Lucas’s failed experiment that was "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace"). By utilizing the technology to assist in the storytelling where both are seamless, director Zack Snyder has succeeded where so many others before him have failed. The truism is still the same: the story’s the thing! Several scenes held my mouth agape with sheer wonder over the sheer visual beauty that they conveyed. The overall golden beige tint to the film accentuated the brilliant red cloaks of the Spartan warriors, and the scenes in the fields surrounding Sparta were beautiful, especially the farewells taken in the fields between the King Leonidas and Queen Gorgo as he made his march north to the fiery gates. The true stunner was the end scene, a scene that was a slow pull back from the body of Leonidas, riddled with arrows. As the camera (computer?) pulled back, the fallen bodies of the remaining 300 were shown as a sort of macabre tapestry that was equally grotesque, sad, and beautiful. If you choose to see the film, you will recognize the shot. Of course, there were some weak points. Rodrigo Santoro’s portrayal of the Persian King Xerxes was laughable, but this can easily be overlooked because the role was so small. Some of the mythological elements were a bit disconcerting when one considers that this film is supposed to be a film about a real battle and a real time in history, but this too is easily explained. The story is told in narrative form by Dilios, the sole survivor of the 300 who was sent back by Leonidas to tell the tale. Liberties with the narrative are acceptable, especially in light of Dilios’ desire to get the Spartan’s blood up.

The film is extremely violent; however, the violence rarely approaches the level where it could be described as gratuitous. The battle scenes are the strength of the film; the use of slow motion is used effectively to the point where the audience can almost understand the heat of battle.

This is the first good film of the year. Thankfully, it only took 3 months to get here. Will it be considered a classic? Probably not. Was it enjoyable? Heck, yes! Was it worth the price of an IMAX admission? They should be charging MORE to see this film. What about what the critics said? Well, my advice is look to what the film hopes to accomplish with its audience. If an audience watches a film and looses itself in a film without wondering “how did they do that?”, the film is a success. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of reading Frank Miller’s source graphic novel, I recommend that you read it prior to seeing the film. Your appreciation of what Zack Snyder and the Virtual Studios team have accomplished will be that much greater.

 


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