It's becoming a oft-reported tale by now. High profile film appears at major European film festival, reports soon circulate the film is roundly booed, followed by further reports that question whether the booing was universal or was conducted by a small, yet vocal, minority of members of the press, likely (wait for it) the FRENCH!
So here we have Cinematical's Erik Davis filing a somewhat breathless report last week that Zack Snyder's upcoming theatrical version of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 (based on the famous Battle of Thermopylae, waged between the vast Persian army and a small number of well-trained Spartan warriors) had received a "chorus of boos" in Berlin:
It started shortly after the opening credits; small groups of folks began heading for the door. It got worse when the main villain appeared on screen and all the audience could do was laugh. And, yes, it ended when whatever was left of a packed house booed Zack Snyder's 300 as the end credits scrolled up the screen
More than just reporting what he says he witnessed, Davis summed up what the screening was sure to mean for 300's potential when it opens in the US next month:
"(O)nce and for all squashing all rumors that this film would sparkle, dazzle and unite moviegoers from around the globe in the belief that 300 would be the first great flick of 2007..."
"Sure, Europeans might not gobble up Snyder's vision in quite the same way us Americans will, but I feel pretty confident in saying this flick will hit the States with a huge thud ... and not even the 300 muscles of its cast will be able to save it from the imminent death handed out by a slew of eager critics."
The problem? Some pretty big critics and film writers were already weighing in. And they liked 300. From Todd McCarthy at Variety:
The Spartans fight to the last manly man in "300," a blustery, bombastic, visually arresting account of the Battle of Thermopylae as channeled through the rabid imagination of graphic novelist Frank Miller. Rendered by director Zack Snyder in a manner very similar to last year's Miller adaptation "Sin City," except in full color, this is a steroid-fueled fever dream about self-realization through extreme violence. In the larger picture, the cartoonish history lesson inescapably describes a monumental East vs. West conflagration, which might be greeted with muted enthusiasm in the Middle East. Action addicts in general and carnivorous fanboys in particular will chow down on this bloody feast.
Those turned off by the sex-and-violence cartoonery of "Sin City" can embrace "300," which screened Out of Competition here. In epic battle scenes where he combines breathtaking and fluid choreography, gorgeous 3-D drawings and hundreds of visual effects, director Zack Snyder puts onscreen the seemingly impossible heroism and gore of which Homer sang in "The Iliad." A raging hero mowing down multitudes with sword, shield and spear suddenly seems plausible.
Anne Thompson at the Hollywood Reporter in a profile of producer Mark Canton:
This hugely entertaining, over-the-top action adventure uses the latest technology to bring a comic book to visceral life -- from Butler's star-making role as the heroic (and half-naked) Leonidas to bloody, hacking swordplay, a grossly deformed hunchback and a deadly shower of arrows that blots out the sky. This highly stylized graphic technique inevitably will be widely imitated.
The new film is as visionary as the (mostly) black-and-white "Sin City," which was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, but it's also more engaging and entertaining; some critics felt that the 2004 neo-noir pulp fiction was dull, despite the visual pizzazz. In contrast, Snyder's "300" translates colorfully Miller’s graphic novel of the ancient historic tale by combining inventive live action with virtual backgrounds.
Epic in scale and visual effects, “300” is a thrilling adventure about passion, courage, freedom and sacrifice, embodied by the Spartan warriors who fought one of the greatest battles in history. As such, the picture should be especially popular among teenagers and young viewers.
So it's not exactly a Da Vinci Code drubbing. Hell, it's not even akin to the reaction to Marie Antoinette, which was reportedly booed at Cannes but which later was defended by a handful of US critics, who added that it was that aforementioned small minority of French who did the booing.
Davis' first post, which initially failed to note that the screening in question was a press screening (he added this information in a later update), was soon followed by a scathing review of 300, and both posts quickly attracted the wrath of fan boys or Warner Bros. employees in disguise, depending on which side you seem to take in the argument. Among the responses to the posts:
"How can the audience in Berlin be right and ALL the raving reviews be wrong? Something doesn't seem right."
"This tells me these people were morons..If they were walking out shortly after the opening credits. Too many reviews, especially from fantasy/scifi/graphic novel fans and others are showing up raving about this movie....Makes me seriously question and doubt the validity of this review."
"(C)onsider the source. There are likely to be a lot of reviewers out there who think themselves all self-important and all knowing when it comes to this. I think they are fools."
"Alright, you're obviously a douche of a reviewer, Erik Davis, with no appreciation for the source material and therefor no credentials for writing this review. You write that the dialogue "felt as if it were written by a seven year-old, and not the great Frank Miller," and then you proceed to mock dialogue FROM the graphic novel. Have you even read it? It sounds to me like someone got a little too caught up in the moment and forgot how to do their job. Remember, this review is coming from a guy who earlier today declared, on the weight of ONE industry screening, "I feel pretty confident in saying this flick will hit the States with a huge thud," disregarding the overwhelmingly positive response it's gotten in test screenings."
"Thanks to Google alerts, I have read over 100 reviews of this movie and your's is the only negative review. You kept saying the audience did not like it. The truth is that you did not like it, and that is OK."
In response, Davis first dismissed any previous positive reviews:
Oh, and those "rave reviews" are coming after one screening for a bunch of fanboys at Harry Knowles' little 24 hour festival. I wouldn't exactly count them as the majority.
But later, expressed concern and confusion over the vitriolic response:
"Wow, never in my life have I received so many hurtful comments after a review. Look folks, I always enter a film with an open mind, and really want to pick out the good versus the bad. I was looking forward to 300 just as much as the next guy, but it did not sit well with me. Was I a little bit too harsh after watching 17 films and not sleeping here in Berlin? Perhaps. I think most around me are a bit jaded by now, covering a major festival like this is pretty tough stuff.
"Is it tough watching a movie amongst people who do not like it right from the start, who block your view every five seconds as they exit the theater, laugh throughout and boo at the end? Very."
Later, on another website, Davis said that he regretted not stipulating that this was a press screening:
"What I said happened at the screening, happened at the screening. Yes, it was my fault for not specficially stating it was a press screening early on — but I did add it in later — frankly, I had a deadline and another movie to catch and was asked to write the story up real fast."
In the same comment, Davis points to a post on David Hudson's blue chip film site, GreenCine Daily, for confirmation of what he saw:
If you look online (I believe GreenCine also has a review from the same screening I was at), the boos, folks leaving the theater and the laughter are all mentioned. So, I was not imagining anything, it happened.
Problem is, while the GreenCine review, written by Adrienne Hudson (which is a sort of mixed "I hated the first half but the battle scenes were pretty great" summary), does mention booing at the press screening, it also mentions cheering:
"(F)or every cheerer at the press screening there was at least one booer, and the battle was on as the credits rolled."
Wait, there was cheering at the screening too? And the cheering press was battling against the booing press during the end credits? Well, where is that in Davis' reporting?
There is a bit of an odd thing happening over at the Berlin Film Fest. Zack Snyder's 300, the epic Spartan movie, had its world premiere there. At the world premiere the apparent reaction was incredible, with a report from Warner Brothers publicity stating that, “the screening was interrupted again and again by spontaneous applause and cheers from the 1700 strong audience.” I really want to help support this film with as much buzz as possible, because it really was incredible.
Now, I'm not trying to be a stickler, but Cinematical is reporting that at a press screening the film was booed. Although I don't think Erik is flat out lying, I think that reaction is just a bit ridiculous and not the realistic reaction of the interested movie going audience - so don't be at all swayed.
Meanwhile, Like Anna Karina's Sweater weighed in:
Finally, a few words about 300, mostly to come to the defense of Erik Davis, who is taking quite a beating for his negative review. Remember that scene in David Lynch's Dune where Sting, at his overacting worst, screams "I will kill him!"? Now imagine a film where every single line is uttered with the same bombastic fervor, whether deserved or not. This is what 300 delivers, and ridiculous doesn't begin to describe it. With laughable attempts at Shakespearian dialog, this is a film that will appeal only to adolescent fanboys or enthusiasts of greased, half-naked men fighting each other. Forty minutes was all I could manage. 300 might just be the new Showgirls.
So what are we left with? That some critics will love 300 and some will hate it? What's so new about that?
My problem with Davis' initial post (not his review) is that he leaves out two important facts. First, that this took place during a press screening (which he later corrected) and second, that there was cheering to go along with the boos. Further, that he extrapolates from this somewhat varnished reporting that the film is destined to bomb. Call it quick on deadline, call it feeling jaded, call it "I'm positive that everyone had the same reaction I did and I know it because I talked to two other internet reporters who hated it", just don't call it good film reporting.
But what has followed is of almost equal interest and insanity - the notion from Erik's detractors that he must be "biased against the film" or be on some kind of vendetta (which he has exhaustively countered by saying that he has been hyping the film as much as the next guy - which might be part of the problem, actually) paired against the notion that those "calling bullshit" are either deluded fan boys, AICN-refugees or employees of the Burbank studio that is releasing the film. Davis has already lodged "who are you working for?" against some of his detractors, which is childish and silly. You went after a film with full gusto, take your lumps.
The truth about press screenings at film festivals? You can't gauge a single thing from them. I went to the Pan's Labyrinth press screening in Toronto and guess what. A bunch of people left during the screening. Some after just ten minutes, some halfway through. By the time it was over, maybe 2/3 of the audience was left. The applause? Tepid and maybe from 15 people. Should I have launched a blog post predicting that Pan's was DOA? No, cause that's what a press screening is like.
And so we should apparently now add the notion that the press, particularly at major European festivals, like to boo films, particularly big budget Hollywood films. And perhaps we should stop reporting that reaction as if it were the final judgment handed down from the Oracle at Delphi.