<b>The Back Lot:</b> Critics critiqued

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 situation underscores yet again the disconnect between the cinematic appetites of critics vs. those of the popcorn crowd. The kids who storm their multiplexes to catch the opening of “Night at the Museum” don’t give a damn what the critics think (“Museum” has passed $525 million worldwide).

The distribution gurus say they prefer “four-quadrant movies,” but I”d suggest that there are only two: One quadrant consists of the hardcore fans who are propelled by “buzz” and the second embraces the rest of the filmgoing public who wait to learn whether the movie”s any good or not.

So several questions present themselves: If the established media want to stay relevant, should their critics make a passing attempt to tune in to pop culture? In short, should at least someone on the reviewing staff try to be relevant to both quadrants?

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.

“Ghost Rider” didn”t register a single positive review on Variety”s Crix Picks chart (“Cheesy Rider” headlined the review in the New York Post) but the movie has passed $156 million worldwide. “Night at the Museum” inspired Stephen Holden of the New York Times to this lumpy metaphor: “The movie is an overstuffed grab bag in which lumps of coal are glued together with melted candy.”

There”s always a degree of culture shock when movies this inept produce numbers this ecstatic. Several glib explanations suggest themselves.

From a marketing standpoint, we are reminded that February and March are oddly underrated by the studios. Every “tentpole” movie seemingly has to be released within the eight week May-June corridor of self-destruction. Yet clearly a lot of filmgoers would like to be entertained in the post-Oscar period as well, and they deserve better than they are getting.

As for the critics, they should consider a sabbatical until September, when movies aimed at their quadrant magically reappear. After seeing “Ghost Rider” and “300” back-to-back, battle fatigue has clearly overwhelmed the entire fraternity.

And, by the way, if you’ve ever met a film critic, you”ll know they’re not big on either the pectoral, deltoid or other muscle groups.

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