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by Bill Gibron

5 Nov 2009

No one likes to be taken advantage of. It plays with already questionable self-esteem issues, especially for those who fancy themselves as smug, smart-ass know-it-alls. Especially in today’s cynical, post-modern age, it’s hard to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes - cinematically, artistically, or factually. Cracks in the defining demeanor always appear, letting you know full well that everything you’ve just experienced is a lie. We critics fancy ourselves as ace detectives in the world of filmic bullshit. We love to call out amateurism, arrogance, a lack of imagination, and all other facets of filmmaking that get under our skin.

So perhaps this is why the recent screening of Universal’s The Fourth Kind has left me in such a quandary. I consider myself a smart man (though several in the online readership may doubt that claim) and, at 48 years of age, quite capable of uncovering a con-job when I see it. A few years ago, when everyone was yelling about how Borat was all “real”, about how obviously talented Sacha Baron Cohen captured segments with Pamela Anderson and others as part of a “guerilla comedy” style of filmmaking, I recognized the ruse and called it out. After dozens of hate filled emails and comments, the actor (and studio) eventually admitted to ‘staging’ several of the sequences. Score!

Similarly, I have a hard time falling for films that propose to be the truth (the whole Blair Witch Project prerelease hype) or use a matter of fact basis for selling their story (Paranormal Activity). I often chalk it up as being too old, too wise, and very intolerant of the trade’s tricks. So when I went into the alien abduction thriller by Olatunde Osunsanmi, supposedly based on ‘actual’ footage captured by psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler, I didn’t know what to expect. The thought that some unknown filmmaker had (a) found an individual with actual recordings of creepy close encounters, and (b) was using the real material as part of his narrative in a major studio release should have sent off big fat, “listen up fool” warning flags. Instead, I went in completely naïve…and got taken. Big time!

That’s right - up until the moment when the “real” Dr. Tyler (a now obvious actress) went into her horror film inspired trance and turned into a monstrous hellbeast with the voice of a rotting Regan MacNeil - I was convinced that Osunsanmi had stumbled across one of the greatest under-reported stories of the last decade. I was floored by the first few “hypnosis” sessions, watching the actors recreate what the split-screen showed were “authentic” moments of terrifying recall. Sure, all the stuff about owls and bright lights sounded like a combination of Twin Peaks and a lame episode of In Search of…, but it reeled me in and set its hook. After the eerie initial “recording” of Dr. Tyler’s own experience with abduction (including that shocking voice spewing what turns out to be Sumerian), I was ready for anything.

Little did I know that The Fourth Kind would tempt me at every turn to discover its hoax. The story takes us to a police standoff where a patient of Dr. Tyler’s, a typical Alaskan burly man named “Tommy”, takes a gun and starts shooting up his family. As the “recreation” sits side-by-side with proposed police tape, I stared in stunned disbelief. They were actually going to show this horrific deed onscreen, I wondered, trying to imagine how a story like this fell outside the purview of the mainstream media for so long. As the pixilated ending played out, I was mortified. How was Osunsanmi getting away with this, I thought? Of course, the best ballyhoo was yet to come.

When Milla Jovivich (as Dr. Tyler) is accused of negligence in Tommy’s case, she reluctantly puts another patient named Scott under, hoping to clarify and certify what’s happening. Within minutes, she’s convinced its aliens, and within another couple of scenes she is called to the same man’s house. Again, a camera is set up, and in perfectly DePalma-esque execution, Osunsanmi shows us how Scott, possessed by his memories of being taken up with the extraterrestrials, brings on his own demon voice and literally levitates above the bed. That’s right - actual footage of an actual human being hovering over his bed is shown, even as the material freezes and mis-frames (due to the advanced technology of the aliens present in the room, naturally).

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! The sound of BS bells going off! I should have heard them, but didn’t. After all, wouldn’t YouTube be making a mint off such “proof” of extraterrestrial contact? Wouldn’t the Amazing Randi, famed magician and longtime debunker of such F/X falderal, have to cough up his $1 million reward after witnessing such a stunning example of life beyond our planet - or at the very least, a real example of paranormal powers? Huh? But no, I was still sitting there, oblivious to the chicanery on display. I marveled at another police tape, this time showing a spaceship-like shape hovering over the Tyler home with complementary freaked out officer narrating what the scrambled image wouldn’t allow us to see. And took it all in and felt the occasional tingle down the back of my spine. God - what an IDIOT!

Ninety-eight minutes later, I walked out of the screening believing that, somehow, an unknown filmmaker had found an equally unreported story about Nome, Alaska’s history of alien abduction and nurtured it into some manner of documentary/docudrama where actors told the story while actual recorded material supplied the proof. Upon arriving home, I immediately went into my office and starting researching my review. I looked up Dr. Abigail Tyler. Nothing. I went to Olatunde Osunsanmi’s IMDb page. He was a relative newcomer to filmmaking. I tried to track the movie’s claim that these events happened over the course of nine days in October of 2000. Nothing. Everywhere I looked, there was no way to verify the main threads of The Fourth Kind‘s claims. And then I found the articles by the webheads who actually had the ability to dig deeper than I…and my huckstered heart sank.

Talk about feeling like a grade-A stone-faced sucker. Alaskan authorities had never heard of Tyler, her supposedly dead husband, her missing daughter - and most importantly - her proposed licensing as a psychiatrist in the State. No such person exists. Period. Sites sourced by Universal and its PR didn’t come online until 2009, meaning that nothing about The Fourth Kind‘s events was available for research until a few months ago. There is no information anywhere about the murder-suicide of Tommy and his family, no account of police staking out Dr. Tyler’s home and seeing flying saucers. Unless there is a massive attempt to cover-up the truth by some rogue government agency (shut up, conspiracy theorists!), Olatunde Osunsanmi tricked us all - or better yet, enter into a deal with the Universal devil to sell his unorthodoxed thriller as something it clearly is not.

You see, The Fourth Kind is NOT the truth. It is a piece of fiction using other pieces of fiction to verify its already fake plotline. Imagine, for a moment, if Robert Zemeckis told everyone that Forrest Gump was a real person, that the footage claiming to be actor Tom Hanks interacting with President’s Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and talking with Dick Cavett and John Lennon was actually all 100% legitimate. It just so happens that the real life rube looks an awful lot like one of America’s favorite superstars. Now take it a step further and watch as Paramount plays along with the joke, creating websites celebrating the real Mr. Gump’s life and the different historical events he was part of. As you sat back in entertained wonder, trying to figure out how this remarkable story missed your radar entirely, somewhere in a Tinseltown skyscraper, studio heads and staffers are laughing - laughing all the way to the bank, laughing at you for being so undeniable gullible.

That’s what’s happening now with this oddball entry. I am not sure what to make of The Fourth Kind. Growing up in the ‘70s, UFOs and stories of alien encounters were part of my formative years. It was a hot topic three decades ago, having died down quite a bit thanks to the Internet, X-Files, and an overall belief that, if we are not alone, we should be left as such. Many critics are slamming the film - not for its lack of truth, but for its jumbled, almost incoherent approach. Others are simply shouting “shenanigans” and leaving the effort to die amongst an already overloaded box office. If I had known it was all a joke from the moment I walked into the theater, my opinion of The Fourth Kind might be very similar. But I was a clueless mark when I took my screening seat and the grafters got me. I got swindled. Like the old adage says, shame on me. 

by Bill Gibron

9 Jun 2009

I wish I could take credit for the label. Instead, I first heard it from fellow critic Dawn Taylor. A Portland, OR staple low these many years, her press previews are frequently interrupted by what the journalistic gang there have dubbed “Screening Rats”. An easy definition of said staple is those consistent members of the free movie crowd who manage to make their presence known in ways both fascinating and unfortunate. They are the proposed backbone of the process, the wonky “word of mouth” Hollywood wants and caters to in order to supplement their marketing. But in reality, they are nothing more than the pests the nickname suggests - scavengers taking up space at a scenario supposedly reserved for journalists and other “invited guests”. They don’t earn disfavor by figuring out the shell game. They get cursed for how they abuse it.

It what will clearly be an ongoing series addressing these iconic individuals, SE&L has decided to start a dictionary of sorts, a glossary given over to identifying and calling out these particular people. While we’ll try not to be mean, rest assured that almost every description here comes from factual personal experience and anecdotal truth. There is no embellishing, or exaggerating. Instead, a limited blog feature can’t fully contain all the various subsections of each category discussed. Hopefully, we will cover the basics before moving along. Perhaps you will recognize a few of the types talked about as well, including the first felon on our movie ‘Most Wanted’ list:

The Regular

You can spot “The Regular” right off the bat. They have the standard Regular regalia - portable chair, knapsack filled with paraphernalia and foodstuffs, movie-sponsored t-shirt, umbrella (in case they can’t get into the theater and it rains), and of course, an attitude of entitlement. These are the people that make the screening process a chore - the one’s who believe their constant obsession with free movies has somehow “earned” them the right to dictate - and participate - in the entire press process. They’re the people who stop you in the mall and dumbfound you with intricate questions about plotting and characterization. They’re the group that crowd around the critic’s row to “say Hello” and chitchat before the lights go down. They’re the voice that screams from the back of the theater whenever the studio representative asks for quiet, addressing said staffer by name. And they are the ones who make up at least 60% of the audience at every screening.

They have the scam down pat. They know which trade publications to read, which ad rags to follow for free ticket info. They pass along extra invitations and brazenly ask the press what’s coming next. They will use you to get in, sneak into morning press-only previews under the guise of some silly excuse, and wonder aloud why you don’t vouch for them when an issue comes up. They may even wonder how they too can get a “cushy” job like reviewing films for a living. They rarely cause trouble once the movie starts, and have been known to stop the talkative and cellphoner in their inappropriate tracks. But that just fuels their desire to “fit in”. Some have been doing it for decades. Others are just now learning the ropes. In reality, they are the sticky floors of the entire movie critic process. They will always be there - and they are almost always fairly annoying. 

The Narrator

Unlike The Talker, who simply wants to share their view on everything (no matter how pointed or off the wall), The Narrator is its own unique - and obnoxious breed. They are the aural subtitles for the visually impaired, a person - typically in their early 20s or over 60 - for whom every onscreen element has to be expressed in bland, matter of fact terms. Talk about having no internal monologue. They will watch the logo and state “Oh, this is a Paramount movie”. The above the title credits will roll and they will flatly mention, “Eddie Murphy and Thomas Haden Church are the stars.” When the director’s name arrives, they will offer up an oeuvre or state with limited enthusiasm “Who’s he?”

As the movie progresses, they will point out the plot turns (“He needs her help.” “She feels left out.”) and if anything thrilling or frightening happens, they will anticipate the terror (“The killer’s hiding in the closet”) or break out the straightforward scripting denouement (“She’s the murderer.”). By the end, they are commenting on the sets (“That’s a big apartment”) or other production subtext (“Couldn’t they get a real horse?”). Remember, the Talker just wants to get some things off their entertained chest. It’s like a group hug with commentary. The Narrator needs to verbally recall the film fact for fact less they forget something and marginalize their overall moviegoing experience. The fact that we get to hear it to is icing on an already rotting cake.

The Cackler

In the world of obsessives, the Cackler comes right after the apologist, two away from the fanatic and three away from the basic fan. For this lover of the onscreen talent - typically a comedian or comic actor, though it doesn’t always have to be - everything is funny. Not just the jokes (or what sadly passes for same). No - EVERYTHING, literally. If the star says “good morning” to their co-workers, they snicker. A raised eyebrow earns a guffaw. A standard one-liner is greeted with the kind of laughter one expects from an audience with late great Richard Pryor, and the sloppy silent comedy or slapstick puts the Cackler into absolute stitches. They are often masked by other Cacklers in the crowd, or a film that is actually witty and hilarious. But more times than not, they are braying away, donkey style, amid the stunned silence of an otherwise bored audience. To call them a plant would be defamatory to botany.

The Gourmand

Ah - the Gourmand. They are truly a rare and repugnant breed. Convinced that a free ticket to the movies means they can load up on indecently priced concessions, these prized pigs will load up on every available item at the snack bar, find a way of working themselves into their predetermined seat (usually right behind you) and then proceed to tie on the feedbag like starved thoroughbreds on the way to the glue factory. The typical ten course meal consists of popcorn, butter, salt (yes, those are three different menu items in the Gourmand’s purview), diet soda, candy, nachos, jalapenos, pretzels, bottled water, and whatever new novelty item (pizza, ice cream bites) the theater has decided to stock. All throughout the movie, they are munching away like a woodchipper chomping through a recently found member of the Witness Protection Program, grunting and groaning in unison with their jaw movements.

And it can be worse - lots worse. Some theaters are foolishly located in malls where the food court offers even more stomach churning delights, and per agreement between the two, ticketholders can actually go to a McDonalds, or a Sbarro’s, buy a gross of quick fried fattiness, and bring it into the screening to sup upon. As the various smells - body odor, feet, fresh cut farts, and honey roasted chicken - mingle, your gag reflex starts working overtime. But the absolute worst has to be the Gourmand subset known as The Experimenter. This is someone who will take popcorn, cheese topping brought from home, and a handful of pickled peppers, and literally let the mélange steep about six feet away from your nose. As the vinegary vileness fills the air, you pray that a sudden angina attack will force the almost always Lark-bound behemoth to leave the handicapped aisle, corned crap conveniently taken along for the grueling ambulance ride to follow. 

The Family Man/Woman

This is an easy Screening Rat to spot - just look at the soiled biological offspring they’ve decided to bring along for the ride - be it R-rated or not. Yep - these are Child Protective Services social nightmares, guardians who give up common sense over the saving of the price of a night at the movies. These are people who believe kids need to see bloody slaughter, sexual deviance, gross out comedy crudeness, and any number of naked body parts, just so they don’t have to part with $10, plus parking. They scoff at suggestions that their crying child be taken out of the theater in order to avoid disturbing the “adults”, and wonder aloud why anyone would question their baby’s need to nurse - right there, during the final frightshow plot twist. These are the morons who change diapers on the stadium seats, feed their wee ones gobs of sugar, and then wonder why they go apeshit for the entire running time. They will gladly get their Hellspawn to shut up, but may give you a damn dirty look in the process.

Unless of course, we are talking about a family film or animation screening. At that point, you might as well buy the semi-automatic and have it surgically attached to your temple. You see, parents, weaned on decades of using movies as a means of babysitting their brats, believe that the cinematic scenario is sacred. Kids are entitled to do just about any dag burn thing they want, since the experience was - supposedly - tailor-made for such unnecessary outbursts. These are the DNA donors who think nothing of having their kid sing along to the songs in the film, even when they can’t possibly know the lyrics or the melody. They encourage shouting and silly comments, claiming that it’s just the juvenile being same. And since Johnny or little Mary can act like a ‘tard in public with little regard for etiquette or manners, Mom and Dad can do the same. Nothing says “shame” quicker than a family unit fake frugging to the knock-off nostalgia hit from the ‘60s stuck on the end of another CG-nightmare.

by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 2009

There’s a concerning discussion going on at one of the websites I write for (not this one, another), which has me thinking about the role of the writer in post-millennial media. Not the fiction scribe who is locked in some literary retreat somewhere, desperately trying to fashion a third act out of the personal memories of his time in boarding school and the girl that got away. Nor are we discussing the still viable journalist, the newspaper (or site) scribe whose job it is to get the facts straight and the story right - though part of what he or she does will apply. No, what needs to be differentiated in today’s messageboard morass is what readers want, what purists expect, and how someone who doesn’t really care about either can survive within such weak geek conceits.

The issue at hand seems to center on what information needs to be included in a DVD review. If you look at such pieces within PopMatters, you will see very little technical discussion and a lot of critical thinking. There’s no kibitzing over aspect ratio, additional content, or picture quality. For us (and I speak more for myself than the rest of the staff), the purpose behind a DVD review is to give the film/TV show/band/music/material in question another, more in-depth look. We are not out to guide consumers on when and how they should spend their limited cash. Now, let’s look at a site like DVD Beaver. Almost exclusively, their reviews run under 200 words - and most of the time, it’s nothing more than a plot overview followed by a “good/bad” certification. Where Beaver earns its bacon, however, is in the audio/video bottom line. They post images, list scientific breakdowns, and try to do as many compare/contrasts of differing versions as possible.

So on the one hand you have a readership that clearly could care less if the latest release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is nothing more than the 20th Anniversary Edition spiffed up with a plastic Lament Configuration collector’s box. Then there are those who want such an assessment to go beyond the movie and discuss each and every item that makes up the disc content proper. I call this the difference between being a “reporter” and being a “critic”. Again, I am not necessarily referring to the correspondent who sits on the sidelines of world events and attempts to make sense of it all. In this case, ‘report’ should perhaps be followed by the word “book”. It seems like, more and more, 21st century audiences want a basic, barebones, by the…you know, breakdown of everything, including the most minor or unimportant minutia.

And they have a point. With discs running between $10 and $30, and their Blu-ray counterparts costing even more, informed decisions are necessary before heading over to the nearest brick and mortar. This is especially true with genre titles. Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead have been released (and rereleased) so many times, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all without a website devoted to the various format permutations. But how much is too much, meaning, how far does someone who writes for a living have to go to appease this particular arena. In my case, Fox sent a Screener DVD of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and I always mention in my reviews that I do not have final product, and therefore cannot accurately comment on final tech specs. In most cases that’s enough. But apparently, such a sentiment is confusing for those outside the craft.

The main comment coming from readers has been “So what is on the various versions of the title? All the extras you mention? Some? None?”, and I am forced to write back with the simple sentiment - I don’t know. True, Fox released single, two disc and three disc versions of the title, but all I have is a screener. After that, if the questioner wishes to pursue the exchange, I usually get a response with something like “Well, a Google search will clear things up.” Oh really. Let’s dissect this suggestion for a moment, shall we. In essence, what the reader is requiring is this - that I, the person with nothing more than a prerelease copy of a film in my hand, should head out onto the World Wide Web, find someone else’s review or overview of the movie, and then copy/rely on/steal from them. For the audience, this may seem practical. For myself and other writers, it’s called plagiarism.

Now I’m not suggesting that the reader wants me to literally repeat the text I find while digging around the ‘Net, but he or she certainly wants me to use the work of others for my own benefit. Instead of offering up my own experiences and takes, I am to draw consensus from the rest of the community and then call it my own. Again, remember the suggestion - don’t rely on what you have in your own hand. Hit Google, get more information, and then report that. In actuality, it’s nothing novel to individuals in traditional media. News organizations frequently lift content from elsewhere, except in their case, they ascribe all attributes and footnote the fudge out of their sources. It’s standard operating procedure. But with the online writer more or less lost in a Wild West wilderness of rights and wrongs, what constitutes “research” and what constitutes theft.

It’s not surprising that within a realm of file sharing, bit torrents, and other forms of information misappropriation that this would be the suggestion. Bloggers frequently post content that they did not “originate” and yet call it their own, while some websites keep on critics who literally rob their reviews from other writers, merely changing the names Dragnet style to protect the less than innocent. In some ways, this is all connected to the ever-changing face of letters. On the one hand, there are reporters, people who simply regurgitate the most elemental of information and leave it at that. Then there are the critics, individuals who try to put such data into a kind of analytical perspective. They may not mention every fact, but they do try for a balance between both. And then there is the writer, someone who can be a bit of both, none of either, or a surreal smash-up of truth teller, sage, and spoiled sport.

I consider myself to be part of the last category. I am not in this to give you the A/V breakdown on the latest format releases. I do offer such insights, but I will not go out of my way to make sure that every single DVD I tackle gets the suggested Google once over. Have I ever used the online source as a means of solidifying a position on a disc? Yes. Have I ever borrowed or “believed” anything another writer has said to bolster my own opinions? Never! I consider myself a writer first and foremost. If I can’t get my point across creatively, maybe it doesn’t need to be made. That won’t make the people who pester me relentlessly about my lack of “completeness” happy, but frankly, that’s not the point. Differing approaches does not lessen the value of each and it also doesn’t make any one more “valid” than another. The next time you’re unhappy with the tech specs someone offers you in a DVD review, practice what you preach - do a Google search. That should solve your problem, right? Right.

by Bill Gibron

17 Mar 2009

We all know what the media thinks of women. Let’s just say that you can’t be too skinny, too slutty, or too bitchy in this post-millennial melee. And we all know what the various artistic outlets think of men. They’re pigs, prone to hygiene issues, and when they aren’t packing major toolboy muscle power, they’re dorking up the place with their testosterone and testes guided nerd noggins. Toss in the generic overview on children (cutesy, cloying, and precocious), minorities (straight out of a ‘30s Hollywood script), and any other recognizable type (brainiac scientist, hand-sign throwing skate rat) and it’s a specious look locked into a lowest common denominator decision.

So it’s no surprise then that the powers that be, desperate to connect with a web wired world, has decided that stuffy film critics with a wealth of history and a decent amount of artform perspective should be replaced by you - or at the very least, a dithering, dunderheaded close facsimile thereof. Like the glut of gamer experts who wear their oh-so idiosyncratic interests on their highly irreverent t-shirts, movie reviewing is being purposefully dumbed down to match your own inherent belief in your unsophisticated, knee-jerk reaction - sorry, opinion. Like the old saying about a-holes, it’s apparently true that everyone has a viewpoint on entertainment, and as with most mentions of the anus, they almost always stink.

But the media has taken this concept a nauseating step further, granting the YouTube/Twitter-atti a big, fat booth in the marketplace of ideas. Not only that, they’ve marginalized the original group that made film criticism a heralded concept to the point where their boring old fartdom overwhelms any positive benefit they can have on the discourse. No, it’s kooky carnival barker time with horrendous examples like Movie Mob (Reelz Channel’s vomit-inducing vox populi clip show) arguing for a more hands-on approach to the notion of analysis. Now, there is nothing technically wrong with giving the consumer their say. Hollywood has long capitalized on such a feigned, focus group interest. But with print dying on a daily basis, and other outlets sharing their limited supply of content, the media is turning to you to give them a marketing-friendly edge. 

Recently, Rotten Tomotoes premiered its own version of a movie show on the ‘Net friendly network Current TV. It consists of the typical G4 presenter dynamic. Host Brett Erlich (a staff writer for the Al Gore created channel) is all shrugged shoulders and face stubble, his demeanor a combination of post-millennial irony and stand-up comic cluelessness. For her part, real comedian Ellen Fox does her best “obtainable hot girl” routine while also adding a healthy dose of ‘aren’t we clever’ camaraderie. Together, they dissect what’s new at the theaters, what’s hot on DVD, and what archival titles you need to check out immediately. In between all the review haiku, three word excuses for scrutiny, and standard nu-chat show smarm, video takes from the members of RT are added in to give the real man/woman a sensible say.

As with Movie Mob, this is the show’s biggest misstep. Sure, it’s cool to see yourself - in this case, reflected in the face of a basement dwelling dweeb who runs a snarky site dedicated to Teen Wolf 2 - on TV, but is that really film criticism? A while back, we discussed the difference between being a reporter and being a reviewer. In essence, when Siskel and Ebert gave their trademarked thumbs up/down on a film, all analysis ended. Realize, there is a difference. Giving a movie a “brutally honest” appraisal is one thing. To do so without a single bit of backing is a lot like claiming an assertion as the truth. In a recent interview, Erlich and Fox both name checked Ghostbusters as their first movie memory. They went on to riff on several other offerings, all dated between 1980 and 2009. Only Singing in the Rain and The Thin Man were referenced as “classic” Hollywood.

Of course, the notion of breaking down the barrier between critic and audience is what something like The Rotten Tomatoes Show is all about. It’s the same with Movie Mob But just like American Idol, or similarly styled reality TV attempts, this is the world as filtered through the mindset of some executive type with too much time on their hands. Are you and your friends accurately reflected in the people presented on these shows? Do they say things that you truly believe? Would you be proud to point to them and say “see, that’s real film talk for ya!”? Or could it be that, like any explosion in communication, these initial attempts are the Poochie of programming misinterpretation.

Now, no one is suggesting that the old school journalist with an inherent hatred of horror and a dismissal for anything new and novel should remain the banner waver for an entire artform. Progress should mandate progression. But should someone who learned all they know about film from a VCR and a steady diet of HBO really take their place? How far outside the normative mainstream box are these nu-media darlings really thinking? Are they exploring the universe outside the American shores? Are they tuned into the true independent film? As shills for commercial conglomerates (Rotten Tomatoes is owned by IGN, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp), isn’t there some innate “spin” to what they do? Isn’t some YouTube yutz with his own weekly review show more “real” than a couple of auditioned tentpole talents?

Remember, the whole point of these nu-critics is to pander directly to you, to indirectly provide you with an outlet for your inferred opinion. Going back to the gamer paradigm for a moment, I remember when G4 first hit the air. It was all fake anime girls with F-you eyes and deep plunging necklines. The review shows tended toward the blatantly obvious and what passed for news would make the cast of Entertainment Tonight collectively look like Edward R. Murrow. Over the years, the blather has subsided, replaced by some mannered yet meaningful dialogue. Sure, Attack of the Show is still slacker-vision, but X-Play typically digs deep to understand the business of games, and why certain titles continue to please while others fail miserably. Gone are the days of group ra-ra cheerleading. In their place is an almost perfect balance of publicity and purpose.

If they are to succeed, shows like Movie Mob (or Reelz’s entire raison d’etra, for that matter) and Rotten Tomatoes need to move away from the gimmicks and get back to the basics. Instead of making the crowing collective a popularity contest, they need to find a way to fuse meaning back into the material. Growing pains are just that - hurtful and harmful. Instead of helping the perception of online as the new consensus, these shows are sullying the attempt before it even gets a footing. MTV recently entered the fray with a show entitled Spoilers. But thanks to a perception over being “too traditional”, rumor has it being taken off the air for a company mandated revamp. If you think the two Bens - Lyons and Mankiewicz - are bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. If the past is any indication about where the nu-critic is going, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better - if at all.

by Bill Gibron

28 Jan 2009

To me, backlash is the most interesting, and unnerving, of commercial responses. When something is popular, there will always be those who think the well-accepted entity is over-praised and unworthy. They will pride themselves on being the only person who ‘hated’ a certain item long before the wave of counterattack occurs, and they’ll smirk in self-satisfied glee when the consensus slowly starts to swing their way. Even when it eventually settles somewhere toward acceptance, the backlasher feels vindicated. As professionals, critics especially like this kind of competitive give and take. Sometimes, we go out on a limb for films (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Speed Racer) only to see the immediate reaction reject our praise. Oddly enough, months later, these titles get a second chance, gaining a new, often positive perspective with the passing of time.

And so it is with the backlash. There are definitely times when something becomes so much of a social sticking point that the overtly obvious hype and celebration becomes irritating. We might not have actually hated the element in question, but the constant barrage from the media and the marketers of exaggeration keeps pushing us toward dissention. It’s rare when it happens - I can think of only two situations where the deluge of plaudits caused me to reconsider my opinion. The first came with Juno. I really enjoyed the film when it first came out. I thought it saucy and slightly unhinged in its magic realism meets street smarts dialogue. I had no problem with Diablo Cody and her retro-burlesque shtick. Then the Oscar race anointing happened, and everything changed.

It’s a feeling similar to when your favorite band is suddenly “discovered” by the mainstream. Your own private world, the songs and lyrics that mean the most to you are, without warning, unexpectedly streaming out of the mouths of fair-weather fans. They lack the history. They lack the devotion. They lack that personal link. Still, because of the joys of jumping on a bandwagon, or the inherent validity of the item being championed, the object goes from insular to nearly universal. So when Cody was being crowned the new voice of a generation, when Juno was taking nomination slots away from films like Into the Wild, Sweeney Todd, and Gone, Baby Gone, it wasn’t hard to turn on the hate. Now, whenever the film flickers by on my current premium cable channel line-up, I simply continue hitting the remote. I’m not interested in revisiting it - at least, not now.

The other example actually has a link to this year’s Oscars. When Batman Begins was released back in 2005, I was not on the front lines of supporting the film. I wasn’t sure that the Dark Knight needed an update/revamp/reimagining, and I wasn’t sure Christopher Nolan was the man to do it. I had enjoyed his work as a director, but didn’t understand why he (or Darren Aronofsky, or any other current critical cause celeb) would want to dabble in the superhero genre. Convinced that nothing about this movie would speak to me, I purposefully boycotted its theatrical run. Even as praise came pouring in, I avoided the initial release, failing to give the film even the remotest part of my always occupied attention span.

The same thing happened when the DVD was released. I balked at the chance of picking up the two disc special edition, assured it could never live up to my expectations. I shivered as my fellow writers placed the title at or near the top of their year-end Best of lists. As I relished the rapid ascension of cast members like Cillian Murphy, I still maintained an arms length approach (hype can do that to you). Finally, when it was announced that The Dark Knight was finally coming out, and that I probably should see Batman Begins in order to appreciate the two film’s linear connection, I cracked. Seeking out a single disc widescreen copy from a local B&M, I took my perceived dissatisfaction with the film, warmed up the DVD player, and prepared to be disappointed.

Instead, I was proven wrong. The movie was masterful, a unique and often artistic take on the entire hero as everyman mystique. The backlash that I had built up in my mind (though many may now consider it nothing more than an ill-informed dismissal) suddenly didn’t need to be there. In its place was a newfound respect for what Nolan managed to create, and it’s a feeling I carry over to the latest installment in the filmmaker’s fascinating reconfiguration. Along with Oscar front runner, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight is indeed experiencing a kind of post-party communal rejection. With people pointing out that massive popularity does not necessarily equal across the board appreciation, the argument offered is that, in the case of each film, the overall assessment is out of touch with the true quality present.

Of course, that’s bullshit. Taken individually, both Slumdog and Dark Knight are marvelous achievements. Sure, they may not live up to the overbuilt expectations that have come from a bored press corps pushing each entry beyond their breaking point. When I saw it in theaters back in June, Nolan’s latest Batman movie was 145 minutes of majesty. It was everything you hoped a sequel should be, and much, much more. Slumdog was also a pseudo-shock. While I loved almost everything director Danny Boyle had done up to this point, I wasn’t prepared for such a wondrous, “wow” experience. As every narrative facet unfolded, I was transfixed and transported, moved innately into the world Boyle wanted us to experience.

It comes as no surprise then that 2008’s biggest financial hit and its companion critical accomplishment are receiving so much sanction. With an Internet based almost exclusively on the “look at me” dynamic of dialogue, extreme opinions speak louder than rationality. Being on the other side of the Dark Knight/Slumdog situation means you get to gloat when the Academy snubs the former and finds a way to deny the latter its well-deserved statue. It means standing out from everyone, not based on well-considered reasoning and finely tuned analysis, but just because you’re different. While you are entitled to your opinion, an assertion is not a fact. Let’s face it - if 100 people are standing in a room, and 99 of them love red wine, the one sipping white will become the center of attention. That’s why the backlash is possible - and popular. It doesn’t take much to dissent, and as a result, be different.

I still feel bad about my issues with irrational rejection. I still feel said pangs whenever George Lucas rears his goitered head and starts dishing out more watered down Star Wars product. As one of the teenagers who made this ‘70s idol a fanboy’s dream, I still can’t shake the inevitable sensation of being used - and perhaps, that’s the best way to look at backlash. It’s the feeling that, beyond one’s better judgment, beyond the ability to think individually and stand sensibly away from the rest of the flock, you are mandated to appreciate something that just doesn’t sync up with your sensibilities. There’s no immediate connection, no chance to decide for yourself. Of course, you don’t have to get caught up in the machine. You can simply sit back and enjoy/dislike a movie for what it is and what it means to you. But then that wouldn’t make you special, would it? Ah, the price of ersatz fame.

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