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by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh?

When a bureau agent goes missing, the Washington bigwigs decide to track down former FBI agent Dana Scully, now working in her previous profession as a doctor. They hope she will lead them to the infamous (and disgraced) Fox Mulder. Seems a convicted pedophile, a former priest named Fr. Joe, claims to have a psychic link to the victim, and the current agency has no time for such supernatural falderal. Under the guidance of agents Whitney and Drummy, the former X-Filers head out into the cold West Virginia wilderness, defrocked clergyman in tow. There, they begin to unravel a sinister plot involving missing persons, incomplete visions, and severed limbs. Meanwhile, this return to ‘darkness’ has Scully questioning her connection to Mulder. It doesn’t help that she has a terminally ill patient to contend with…and a hospital administration who wants to merely give up on the boy.

In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor. After witnessing the Shakespearean angst of a masked vigilante battling a clown faced psychopath, or the reinvented spy superlatives of a literal ‘iron’ man, a standard serial killer procedural is just not that significant. It’s not that head honcho Chris Carter doesn’t try to artificially load his film with significance. The subtext surrounding this latest stand alone installment (in line with the ‘monster of the week’ work the series initially traded in) deals with several current hot button topics - stem cell research, black market organ transplants, pedophilic priests, gay marriage…even George Bush gets a gentle, sound cue tweaking. Yet all of this social sturm and drang can’t compensate for a narrative that’s made-for-TV friendly, and decidedly out of its medium.

Carter seems convinced that this less showy Silence of the Lambs will truly resonate with audiences. He treats every confrontation - either between Mulder and Scully, Scully and Fr. Joe, Mulder and anyone within earshot - as if the fate of the free world rests on the very next syllable. He keeps his clues close to the vest, making it almost impossible for viewers to follow along (or eventually foil) his dénouement. He gets a lot of mileage out of the bleak Vancouver landscape, and yet the snow-covered vistas hide more than just the film’s muddled motives. I Want To Believe seems locked in a kind of entertainment permafrost, feeling that elements that made heads spin and tongues wag 15 years ago will still seem intriguing in these days of torture porn and gorehound gratuity.

Indeed, the best material here ignores the mystery fully, and instead focuses on the complicated and moralistic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Since this film takes place AFTER the end of the series (Fight the Future was set between seasons five and six), there are lots of references to certain interpersonal cliffhangers. The fate of William, the trumped up charges against our hero, the need to stay in hiding, and the reason behind Scully’s reluctance to rejoin the cause are all addressed, and stalwarts Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are so familiar with these characters that they nail every emotional beat. Sure, these scenes stop the narratives formulaic forward motion, but without them, I Want to Believe would be nothing more than a run of the mill, slightly more macabre CSI.

The rest of the cast confirm this. Amanda Peet is given the thankless job of playing the agent still willing to give Mulder and Scully a chance, while Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is reduced to slowburning as the surly ‘bad cop’. Bill Connolly’s boy buggering cleric is all fright wig gray and Scottish brogue, lacking the depth needed to make Fr. Joe anything other than a plot point. Perhaps the biggest mistake a movie like this makes is turning the terror into an unseen item. Since we don’t know who or what is behind the disappearances, and don’t get enough information to connect the uncovered body parts, we have to wait to the final 15 minutes before anything clicks. When it does, we see an intriguing potential in the premise - and recognize how it was more or less scuttled for other storyline significance.

Oddly enough, all would have been forgiven had co-writer/director Carter (who redeems himself in both behind the scenes arenas) simply renamed this project and cast Lance Henriksen as prophet/profiler Frank Black. This is much more a Millennium movie (the horribly underrated X-Files follow up from 1996) than something Scully and Mulder look comfortable in. And in our current political clime, the dour face of a man who’s tuned into the approaching Apocalypse makes for a much better shock conduit. While some fans have longed for the return of the more horror-tinged side of the series’ set-up, the alien invasion conspiracy - and its inconsistent folklore - is what drives most memories of (and messageboard showdowns over) the show.

As a stand alone title, something to remind fans of how chilling The X-Files used to be, I Want to Believe does a decent job. And when compared to other similarly styled thrillers, including recent rejects like Untraceable and 88 Minutes, it is definitely a clear cut above. But in a season where a sort of creative classicism rules, resting on one’s laurels just won’t do. X-Files: I Want to Believe, for all its interpersonal intrigue and controversial context, feels like the proverbial little fish in a very, very big cinematic sea. No matter its many strengths, it just can’t compete. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Jul 2008


How do you like your comedy - serious (meaning witty without being wanton) or scatological (bring on the feces and the farts!)? Do you prefer your laughter driven by sparkling dialogue, insightful characterization, and tasty interpersonal bon mots, or do you favor giggles glazed over with expletives, bodily fluids, and the fun that can be found in both? It’s a contention that’s as old as the genre itself. For centuries, jesters have lived (and often died) by mocking the rich, ribbing the poor, and playing to both’s baser instincts when the subtler forms of funny didn’t do it. In the movies, it seems the two are often mutually exclusive. After all, no one mistakes The Marx Brothers for the Three Stooges. With the sensationally sophomoric Step Brothers hitting theaters tomorrow (25 July), it’s time to look back on some illustrations of how clever and crude in combination - or C3’s for short - end up being a source of undeniable hilarity. 

While the latest from Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and newest creative soulmate John C. Reilly is all foul mouthed frat boy toilet trade-offs (and damn funny in the process), it’s really nothing more than an extended series of splatter jobs. There’s no important message, no attempt to find reality in its ridiculousness. Yet there are many actual examples of where the two seemingly divergent styles of comedy have meshed quite effectively. Some would even argue that, when done properly, the clever/crude combo gives rise to another alliterative adjective - classic (anyone for C4?). Below are just a few non-inclusive illustrations of the best of both wit worlds expertly fused together. The only comic continuity present is that both types are offered equally, and balanced to make sure neither completely overwhelms the others. If one or the other is out of whack, they fall back into their home category for easier examination.

And let’s get some debatable punchliners out of the way right up front, shall we? The Producers? Too brilliant to be considered crude, even given the bad taste hippie Hitler subtext. There’s Something About Mary? Jokey juvenilia without a stitch of socially redeeming value. The Blues Brothers? The outsized physical shtick and stunt set pieces override the craven culture steals from the black community. Animal House? Something serious? Come on…it’s college after all. Certainly, one could go out on a limb and champion subversive standard bearers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, groove on the gore-laced lunacy of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or defend the dick driven delights of something like Superbad. But when it comes to the C3’s, the comparison goes beyond good. There must be a visible inclusion of both the dignified and the dumb within final framework. Let’s begin with:

Knocked Up

While many people write off this Judd Apatow masterwork as just another example of his communal comedic approach (same group of actors, different storyline and setting), there is really much more going on here than slackers obsessed with sex. The message of maturity, about facing life’s unexpected events with candor and personal power are unmistakable. Toss in a few priceless takes on marriage and parenting, and a group of computer geeks that give both delineations a bad name, and you’ve got one of the greatest laugh-fests ever. If Mr. Apatow is remembered for nothing else, this stellar reflection of reality circa 2007 will stand as his best.

Blazing Saddles

You can tell Mel Brooks meant to be confrontational when he helmed this racially charged laugh riot. After all, he was working from material co-written by Richard Pryor, and a few of the original titles for this crazy comic western were Black Bart and Tex X. This remains one of the few non-blaxploitation films to drop the “N” word with intense regularity (up to 70 times, almost always exclusively by whites), and even today, it’s depiction of Old West prejudice still stings. Beyond anything PC, this is one terrific satire, a film that competently comments on the civil rights movement while incorporating a campfire sequence filled with air biscuit floating cowboys.

Female Trouble

John Waters always wanted to make a mass murder melodrama, a combination of Douglas Sirk and Charles Manson. Inspired by Helter Skelter participant Tex Watson, he succeeded with this outrageous sudser, the story of Dawn Davenport, her retarded daughter Taffy, and her rags to riches to repugnance career as a ‘crime is beauty’ supermodel. Loaded with the kind of dialogue that bears constant repetition and the sort of over the top plot points that make Peyton Place seem like The Seventh Seal, this bad taste treat only gets better with age. Along with the equally unsettling (but not quite as funny) Pink Flamingos, it proves Waters’ reputation as the genuine Prince of Puke. 

Tootsie

Before you start squawking and defending this brilliant Dustin Hoffman romp as a pure example of serious, straightforward comedy, remember one very important thing. This movie is entirely premised on one of the most hackneyed, lowbrow facets in all of humor - a guy in a dress. Drag has been a staple of the genre since the all male days of the ancient Greeks, and from burlesque to Benny Hill, it’s been viewed as the cheap and easy way to tweak an audience’s funny bone. In this case, all parties involved raise the vaudeville stunt into something sublime. And don’t forget the less than subtle amorous advances of the dirty old man soap star. Now that’s disgusting!

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Kids spewing profanity. Movies as bad influences. Grassroots campaigns against flatulent Canadians. A useless war fought over stupid USA entitlements. Political hot potatoes tied tenuously to the First Amendment and the right to free speech. These are just a few of the areas creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mine for this flawless big screen adaptation of their hit animated TV series. Taking on the then simmering subject of the media’s influence on the young (Columbine had just occurred four months prior) the duo drove a massive middle finger directly into the eye of dim-witted pundits and self-proclaimed know-it-alls everywhere. It remains the best miscreant musical of all time.

by Bill Gibron

22 Jul 2008


It’s time to get out the black wreaths and the ceremonial armbands, especially if, like this critic, you grew up on a steady diet of Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and their exemplary movie review program Sneak Previews/At The Movies. With the duel announcements this week that Richard Roeper (the replacement for the late Chicago Tribune icon) was leaving the show, and that Roger Ebert was done with his participation, Disney finally felled the giant they’d been gunning for since cancer caused the Sun Times scribe to walk away from his on-air participation. It’s no secret that the House of Mouse wanted the series gone - or at the very least, significantly cut back, reconfigured for a new demographic, and bolstered by a bigger piece of the potential pie (Ebert maintains the symbolic “Thumbs”, At the Movies greatest inadvertent asset). Now they’ve got their wish, much to the dismay and detriment of the serious filmgoer fanbase.

While the pro/con summarization of cinema clearly goes against the intellectual approach to film (movies are much more than a recommendation or rejection), the format created by the legendary Midwest columnists would come to symbolize the video age vitality of the medium. With more and more access to movies - thanks in part to technological advances like cable and VCRs - there needed to be a standard bearer for the post-modern motion picture storm. Enter Gene and Roger, two seasoned salts who braved the bad weather of offering opinions on what many saw as a no win, highly personal proposition. After all, just like music and humor, entertainment evaluation can never be communal or completely universal. Still, they tried, and in the interim, they created consensus, addressed issues threatening the artform (colorization, rampant and gratuitous violence) and even stepped in it now and again.

With Siskel’s passing in 1999, many felt the show would simply fade away and die. Ebert tired diligently to maintain the profile, and after a series of guest hosts and high profile ‘auditions’, he settled on Mr. Roeper. To many outside of Chi-town, he was an odd choice. While the native was born in the city of big shoulders, his columns (and eventual reviews) were of regional interest, mostly. When he was tagged to replace Siskel in 2000, he met with some initial resistance. Some saw him as too mainstream, preaching the studio press kit while his partner kept the criticism ‘real’. Over the years, Roeper has gained the respect of both the industry and the audience. When Ebert himself took ill in 2002, the relative newbie grabbed the reigns of the again shaken showcase and continued to foster its importance.

And now, it is no more - at least, not in the way we remember it. In some ways, it’s unbelievably sad the way this all happened. A few months back, there was a dispute over whether the show could actually use the infamous hand gesture. Ebert, who maintained the rights to most of the format with Siskel’s widow Marlene, felt slighted by Disney’s lowball figure to re-up their interest, and so the pair prevented At the Movies from giving the thumb. Then, this year, with the improving critic returning to his 41 year long print gig, it looked like the non-renewal writing was on the wall. Roeper’s “retirement” from the show is further illustration that, aside from certain financial considerations, Uncle Walt’s ‘yes’ men were no longer interested in keeping the series alive. Both men issued press releases, taking the high road in what was, for both, an understandably painful professional chapter.

The mangy Magic Kingdom proposes to have the last laugh, however. Just yesterday 22 July, the studio announced a “new” version of At the Movies featuring E!‘s Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. While they hope the fresh faces will bring in a “younger, hipper” audience, the 26 and 41 years olds, respectively, have little else to offer. Both are considered seasoned professionals, and yet they lack the background, and more importantly, the perceived authority of Roger and Gene. Remember, Sneak Previews was a PBS program specific to the Chicago area before hitting syndication. And both critics were well into their time stint as print critics. Lyons is just a few years into his current career path, while Mankiewicz can rely on his illustrious heritage (related to Frank, Herman, and Joseph L.) to buy him some early respect.

One wonders how the reduced viewership who made the show a must-watch requirement before hitting the Cineplex feel about both moves. Ten or fifteen years ago, yours truly would have been devastated. Even though he frequently had to fish about to discover what elusive cable station was syndicating the show (and when), Siskel and Ebert were an essential aesthetic guide. Sure, they could be incredibly wrong (Gene adored Saturday Night Fever, while ‘Uncle’ Roger continues to hate on the brilliant Blue Velvet), but more times than not, they tempered their judgment with insights that smacked of that critical rarity - perspective and insight. Rare was their’s a declarative or assertive opinion. They always provided analysis with their sometimes snap judgments. Siskel championed polished and professional scripts, while Ebert longed for directors capable of commandeering the various nuances of cinema.

Yet as with all film journalism, the duo appear destined to be boiled down to a rather superfluous set of symbols. As with numerical ratings or alphabetical/iconographic scores, the thumbs were a concession, a way of giving the casual filmgoer a shorthand commercial calibration. If Siskel and Ebert gave a movie “two thumbs up”, it was probably very good. If they declared the opposite, you could easily write it off your list. When they differed, and they did so frequently, an inferred sort of interactivity was necessitated. You had to match up your own idealized view of what movies meant with the men on the screen, and then indirectly gauge accordingly. Many remember the memorable arguments the pair would participate in, each knowing their particular view made the most sense. Over time, bias and age would play a part, but for many, it was all about those up/down digits.

With Internet illiteracy slowly corroding the world of legitimate publishing (and the accompanying professionalism of actual writers), it’s sad to realize that the ‘yes/no’ dynamic has become At the Movies’ lasting legacy. As stated before, no website which offers reviews does so without such shortcuts. Rotten Tomatoes has the whole “fresh/rotten” routine, while others provide stars, popcorn kernels, or film reels as a means of giving you the gist of the scribe’s ideas. Turning 600 to 1000 words into a series of cartoon clapboards may feed the masses, but it’s also a lazy man’s means of understanding cinema - and if there was one thing Siskel and Ebert (and eventually Roeper) were not, it’s indolent. They took their job seriously, even when it looked like VHS (and then DVD) would reduce all cinema to a series of direct to tape travesties.

Business models are entitled to treat inventory in the most effective way possible, capitalizing on its worth while making sure it doesn’t depreciate enough to warrant a sell-off. In the case of Disney and At the Movies, they clearly believed in two indisputable facts - Ebert was the show and Ebert wasn’t coming back. For all his syndicated steadiness, Roeper never felt irreplaceable. He was a place holder - albeit a damn fine one - for some ethereal pairing that could never occur. No one could replace the show’s curmudgeonly conscious (which Siskel clearly was), and Ebert’s importance to the mediums he helped maintain meant that his continued departure invalidated the show’s worth. No offense to anyone involved, but the At the Movies of 2008 - excellent guest hosts and repeat reviewers or not - was not the series of 1978, or 88, or 98.

Naturally, none of that matters now. Both Ebert and Roeper have vowed to soldier on, and with new on air outlets opening up all the time (HD NET, Reelz cable channel) there are soft places for both to land. And Mickey has his revamp, which while already starting to stink, at least seems evocative of the show’s spirit. Whatever happens, film criticism has lost one of its most important links to mainstream meaningfulness. Thanks to the talents and tireless efforts of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Richard Roeper, an otherwise out of touch audience had a reliable source of EPK-less, non-Infotainment Tonight-lite movie information to draw on. Call it the continued tabloiding of TV, or the web’s final revenge on the Fourth Estate, but the absence of At the Movies will definitely be felt. Even in the most inclusive environment, there needs to be a leader. Here’s hoping this is one champion that’s down, but not out. 

by Bill Gibron

21 Jul 2008


It was all the Internet buzz last week. No, it wasn’t a further dissection and/or dissertation on the then upcoming Christopher Nolan masterwork, The Dark Knight. No, that sensationalized ship sailed about the time the mainstream media was exploiting Heath Ledger’s performance/death. The latest geek cause celeb was, in fact, a first glance, a chance to see a storied title finally brought to the big screen. With the success of his Dawn of the Dead remake and the sublimely stylized 300, Zach Snyder still remained an odd choice to bring Watchmen to the silver screen. Far more flamboyant filmmakers had struggled with the material, most notably Python ex-pat Terry Gilliam. A project long standing in his inconsistent artistic output, there was a time when his version had Kevin Costner and Robin Williams attached.

Thank god for the passage of time (and pop culture fancy). In fact, in 2008 the only true impediment to seeing the fabled graphic novel made, aside from certain technical issues, is the source itself. Writer Alan Moore has never been happy about seeing his work translated to the big screen. With From Hell, V for Vendetta, and especially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen frequently failing (sometimes completely) his vision and approach, he has written off participation in any future film adaptation. As a matter of fact, Gilliam gave up on this project when he approached Moore about how he would translate the text to film. “I wouldn’t” was all the brusk Brit had to offer. Call it curmudgeonly spite or a true desire to protect his work, but Moore makes no bones about his belief in this - or any other - visualizations of his ideas.

That doesn’t mean Snyder has simply stepped in and deconstructed Watchmen. Indeed, from the very beginning of pre-production, he promised to stay as true to the comic as possible. Naturally, there are issues outside his control - running time, studio contracted concessions, the always awkward process of filtering pages of ideas into a single screenplay - but with a fanbase eager to tear him a new as…pect ratio, this is one director who wisely wants to follow the Peter Jackson/Guillermo Del Toro geek appeasement path. From blog posts and visits to the set, the amount of information about this upcoming release has been handled in a cautious, yet creative manner. Let’s face it, whenever you can get moviegoers excited about something with just a couple of photos (which is exactly what happened a few months back), you know you’re doing something right.

Still, the pressure is on to deliver, and this initial glimpse of what Watchmen has to offer will be that all important determinative “first impression”. So what can or will both sides of the coin - the inside and the out of touch - make of this trailer? Does it satisfy the faithful while inspiring the uninformed? The retro styled narrative, using real world events (Watergate, Vietnam) in a fictionalized ‘80s where superheroes - or as they are referred to, “costumed adventurers”/“masked vigilantes” - are forced to hide their identity, is definitely a hard sell, and the cast (Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup) while exceptional in many ways, doesn’t contain a real A-list tent pole name. From either side, things do look promising…at least, for now.

From a Watch-Maniac’s Perspective
On a recent SModcast, indie icon Kevin Smith, a true comic book bad-ass, had a series of superlatives for the Watchmen preview. After admitting to obsessing on the clip for most of the weekend, he argued that it was a “flawless” representation of the world Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created. He stated that it was like watching a trailer for The Catcher in the Rye and that Snyder visualized elements from the novel so sublimely that the noted Clerks creator was developing a bit of a ‘gay’ mancrush on the filmmaker (his description of said passion was, in typical Smith fashion, far more X-rated). For him - and one assumes other Watchmen devotees - the images offered mimicked Moore’s universe expertly. Smith even suggested that the disgruntled writer might embrace what he saw, given the trailer’s truth and attention to detail.

Since Snyder’s primary hurdle has always been to satisfy the true Watchmen demo, it would appear that he has passed the first of what will be many obsessive’s tests. Smith may not speak for the invested masses, but one has to imagine that he does offer one of the more learned, schooled impressions. Smith admits to loving the comic ever since he first read it back in the late ‘80s, and his appreciation has only grown since then. Looking over the blogsphere and messageboard domain, it seems that many who also love the book share his enthusiasm. Naturally, there are those who want more, and others who envisioned Moore’s message in a slightly less slick, big screen blockbuster manner, but for the most part, the fans are in.

From a Watch-Meaningless Perspective
This is the much harder pitch, especially in light of recent superhero films that have failed to live up to overhyped expectations. While some might argue over the delineation, Alan Moore is far from a household name (Simpsons appearance or not), and when people hear that he was responsible for From Hell (decent), League (disaster), and Vendetta (undecided), such heritage doesn’t inspire much confidence. Snyder himself is also a creative wildcard. Both 300 and Dawn were not definitive mainstream hits, since each one inspired most of their love from the specific genre mavens. They don’t cater to your average Joe Filmgoer. And Watchmen will only be his third theatrical effort. Again, it’s a track record that inspires some confidence, if not outright acceptance.

Of course, some spectacular images can change all that, and the Watchmen trailer does look amazing. From the opening sequence where Crudup follows his character’s nuclear fate to the closing moments where a clockwork object rises up from an alien landscape, the two minutes offered provide the kind of provocative, ambiguous visuals that get tongues wagging and chatrooms yakking. Anyone unfamiliar with the material will wonder what or who the glowing blue muscle man represents, the identity of the fetching leather outfitted babe, why angry mobs are protesting against vigilantes, and whose being buried with full military honors. Of course, as with any indistinct approach, what fails to fully enlighten may simply be unclear to begin with. While saving most of the plot for future teasers is understandable, getting the newbie on board should be Watchmen‘s principal aspiration.

The most aggravating part is that, aside from a couple more trailers and a full blown sneak preview/feature or two, we will have to wait until March of 2009 for the final answer. Until then, conjecture will run side by side with educated conclusion, each hoping to get a handle on this event movie before it finally hits theaters. And who knows, maybe Snyder will pull it off. Maybe he will create the post-modern comic book movie that everyone is anticipating. Then again, perhaps Alan Moore has a right to be bitter…and worried. We’ll just have to ‘watch’, and wait.

by Bill Gibron

20 Jul 2008


They are not supervillians. They are not some cartoon-clad combatants looking to make the life of the Caped Crusader a living graphic novel Hell. They don’t hold the fate of the world in their hands - as a matter of fact, within their chosen profession, many believe they barely matter in the marketplace of ideas. When you’ve got a messageboard community that senses they set the benchmark for all movie discussion, what does a mere cadre of critics have to offer? That’s right, Gotham’s Most Wanted is not a clown faced murderer, a fire-scarred ex-DA, a burlap masked pharmaceutical loon, or a disgruntled world criminal. No, it turns out that Batman’s biggest enemy - and by indirect linkage, the biggest bane of fanboy existence - are the 12 journalists (and holding) who gave The Dark Knight a bad review.

Now, there is nothing wrong with voicing one’s opinion. By its very nature, film criticism is a contrite exercise in singular self-expression. Sure, we reviewers try to measure the medium against its past while taking the demographic and intended market motivations into consideration. And when you think about (if you think about it), Peter Travers or Roger Ebert aren’t really putting all of cinema into perspective. They are giving you a glorified judgment call on how they spent 90 to 150 minutes in a darkened theater. Thumbs up? Thumbs down. Sometimes, the experience is wonderful. On rare occasions, it’s a test of one’s personal tolerances. But for the most part, movie journalism is a journey into sustained mediocrity, either end of the decision spectrum being the true rarity. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the current meter rating for The Dark Knight over at Rotten Tomatoes.com sits at 94%. Out of 198 recorded articles, 186 have given the film a positive or “fresh” evaluation. The other 12 are listed as “rotten”, though how many of that dozen could actually be considered an outright dismissal of the movie is up for question. What’s even more amazing, between these dissenting voices, there are almost 2600 angry comments attached to their work (2538 as of 20 July). Like many websites, RT uses the ability to interact (a sham delineation - more on this in a moment) to drive hits and stimulate page views. The concept goes a little something like this: disgruntled/happy reader lets critic/bastard know how right/wrong he or she is, then visits repeatedly to see if anyone agrees/disagrees and if, miracle of miracles, the subject decided to talk back.

Now, the notion of interactivity has always been the ‘Net’s biggest carnival bark, a fallacy articulation that doesn’t really mean what the blinders drawn believers feel it does. For them, the sound of their own voice is apparently communication enough. Comments do not foster a conversation, since for the most part, they are declarative or assertive in nature. Picture it this way - you and your best friend are hanging out, having a few beers, when the subject of Salma Hayek comes up. You believe she’s hot. Your pal thinks otherwise. The WWW version of the dialogue would go a little something like this:

“Salma Hayek is HOT!”

“Salma Hayek is NOT HOT”

“SALMA HAYEK IS TOO HOT, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (Various Emoticons)”

“(EXPLETIVE DELETED) YOU (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (Various Emoticons)”

Not really the Algonquin Round Table when you think about it. Of course, within the context of said exchange, a great deal of spoken subtext and interpersonal reaction is missing. A one or two sentence statement at the end of a review is not really a tête-à-tête, and should never be thought of as same. It’s more like the chant at a soccer match, or the applause/razzberries at a live performance. Aside from the self-aggrandizing element (most comments are more about the person than the piece they’re challenging), these exchanges are reminiscent of Monty Python’s Argument Clinic - the automatic nay-saying of anything the other side has to say.

Proof of this arrives when you look at the Dark Knight consensus. The 12 negative reviews have an average of 211 replies each. The lowest has 77. The highest taps out at 365. On the positive side of the situation, the standard is much, much smaller. Many favorable reviews have no comments, while others have garnered upwards of 30 or 40. A rough estimate would therefore be somewhere in the range of 5 to 7 replies each. Of course, there are aberrations. Two critics in particular warrant responses in the hundreds, but upon closer inspection, the reason becomes apparent - their reviews are less than glowing, and are very critical of the film overall while pointing to elements that allow them to recommend the experience. These are not the glowing raves the community requires, and thus the increase in reactions.

Those under the rejection radar have been eager to defend themselves, calling the web a “hotbed of immaturity” where “mob mentality” rules beyond clear critical thinking. Of course, that’s specious logic, since it suggests that the 186 critics who loved the film are just as out of the loop as the complainers. Clearly, the vast majority of those employed in a professional (or semi-professional) capacity as film journalists believe The Dark Knight to be something very special, so dismissing group opinion when a completely contradictory example of same stares you right in the interface seems baseless. It makes about as much sense as having someone who loved the movie complaining that mass consensus means their own feelings are less valid.

Being the odd man out, especially with something that is (at this point) fairly well received, means that you have to be prepared to take the slings and arrows that come with said status. It applies in either circumstance - this critic loved both Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween and the Wachowski’s recent Speed Racer, and the vitriol still hasn’t ebbed. So if you can’t stand the heat, get out from behind the typewriter, so to speak. But the unusual thing about The Dark Knight discussion (at least on the web) was that much of the hate started BEFORE the film was released. Critics like David Denby of The New Yorker, David Edelstein of New York Magazine, and Marshall Fine of Star Magazine had their reviews up on the Monday before the film was released. Yet within hours, each had dozens of dissenters, all arguing in favor of a movie they had yet to see.

The need for such an outsized defense of a yet to be released film may help explain why there is so much eventual anger against those who have failed to fall under Christopher Nolan’s spell. While the current media message is that critics don’t matter, it is clear that those personally invested in their favorite franchise want very few raindrops on the days before their parade appears. To argue that someone’s negative opinion is invalid, even without being able to ascertain your own verdict on the subject, smacks of a pathetic preemptive strike. Discredit the messenger in case the message turns out to be true, right? Even better, the Internet now fosters a kind of universality when it comes to ability. A few years sitting in front of the VCR/DVD player has turned everyone into a film expert. Bashing those with a few more career credentials under their belt is just another means of making your unqualified point.

Now, this is not to say that every critic is an authority. Some voices are so limited in their purview that they automatically dismiss specific genres or certain actors. But one of the things that a journalist can say - print or online - is that, if doing their job correctly, they consistently see a larger variety of films. Within any 52 week span, a reviewer can go through 200 general and limited releases, and that’s before DVD and other media outlets (such as Pay Per View) offer more options. Within that array are foreign films, documentaries, independents without certain distribution, and other outside the Netflix queue offerings. When said individual decides to dissent from the standard sentiment on a film, one hopes they do it with said perspective ready and articulated. And they typically do.

Sure, some are dismissive just to be different, to be the one who “hated” ET or “loved” the latest Uwe Boll movement. But for the most part, the reaction you see ‘blurbed’ as part of a Rotten Tomato or other summarization is just that - a reaction. It’s how the person saw the film at the moment, and there is little doubt that said subjection would change with time or another viewing. Being outside the mainstream view is not a bad thing, just a curious one. If 195 critics (and the Academy) felt that No Country for Old Men was worth honoring, what did the 11 people who disliked it see that they didn’t? And better yet, how do the 19 people who enjoyed The Love Guru defend themselves against the 108 who hated it?

The answer to such questions begs the original issue. Should someone who panned The Dark Knight be subject to such outsized fury, especially when those complaining were without the proper evidence (i.e. an actual screening) to back up their bashing? Certainly, once the naysayers saw the film, all bets are off. The Internet continues to provide this sham suggestion of interactivity, and therefore comments become the necessary evil that arrives with the new medium’s territory. As long as the business model supports such a hit driven divisiveness, situations such as this one will become more and more prominent (say, when Watchmen arrives in eight months?).

Still, do the Gotham 12 deserve the wrath they received? Why are these critics, and this film, becoming such a cultural lighting rod? It appears like, as print continues its cost-cutting, job eliminating ways, and the web decries its own self-styled position as the latest post-modern example of McLuhan’s laws, more of these circumstances are likely. As it stands, film journalists from foreign countries frequently find racial slurs and other ethnic slams as part of the comment section of their blog/review entries. Maybe it’s the growing pains that accompany any major expression shift. Perhaps we are seeing the calm before the storm before the readjustment. It could just be that, in the world of populist cinema, the geek will countermand the Establishment whenever they feel the need.

Whatever the case, the dozen (and possibly more) negative views of The Dark Knight is just part of an overall commercial phenomenon. Like the film itself, it will take time to see if it has legs, or merely represents a blip on what is frequently an overanalyzed and overhyped event. In the film, good guy Harvey Dent says something very prophetic to Bruce Wayne. “You either die a hero,” he articulates, “or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” In the film criticism game, it’s clear that, in the minds of Generation Vexed, some journalists have overstayed their welcome. They’ve become the nemesis to the nu-media. Sadly, the film also makes it clear we get the very kind of champions we deserve. If those who use anonymous comments as a means of venting their own insular ire are the future, we may also need some kind of comic book superman to save us as well.

 

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