Games

RedLetterMedia's Spin on the Crazed YouTube Reviewer

One of the growing trends in cultural criticism on the internet is the YouTube video. Acting as a well organized visual presentation, a quick five or ten minute video to review pop culture is slowly becoming one of the most effective forms of critique out there. Like citing a passage from a book or play, critics can splice in a sequence of film and then break it down for the audience. There’s a lot of sub-par stuff out there, but when a capable film editor gets to work on it, the results are impressive. RedLetterMedia is the handle of a YouTube user whose video review of The Phantom Menace has recently cracked the million viewers mark, while his Star Trek reviews are all well into the six digit number of views. Striking a careful balance between being informative and entertaining, his videos delve into the nebulous realm of sci-fi film analysis with great results.

Each video features the voiceover of Mr. Plinkett. Sounding like a weird sexist nerd serial killer, Plinkett’s crazed mumblings are mixed with creepy asides and visual gags that give you something to laugh at while the video makes a larger point. I ought to stress now that this is not politically correct humor. RedLetterMedia explains in an e-mail, “When I did the first review, the Star Trek: Generations one, I started to record it in my normal voice and it was just horrible and dull. So I decided to do it in character to make it more palatable, especially since my goal wasn't to just give a cursory review, but rather to get really detailed. It is a massive amount of pointless nerd deconstruction so there has to be a ‘wink wink’ element to it. If you didn't have some kind of humor with the material you'd come off as either someone with no life at all (which is true in my case) or someone who’s a big armchair critic that thinks he knows everything. The character adds a certain level of irony and fun to it . . . it goes back again to short films I used to make with my friend Rich, who has only ever portrayed Mr. Plinkett in the films. He does the voice as well, but I do it in the reviews.”

The videos themselves are all very long and detailed. The Phantom Menace breakdown is 70 minutes long and is organized into ten minute sections. Star Trek: Nemesis takes 40 minutes to tear apart while Generations takes only 30 minutes. Sometimes they explain basic concepts of narrative like the plot arc of a protagonist, and other times they deconstruct the films scene by scene. RedLetterMedia explains, “I run a small video production company with a friend of mine. I do freelance video work whenever I can find it. Mainly weddings and corporate work, although I continue to shoot and edit fun projects like these reviews for Youtube as well as short films and features whenever I can.” The process starts with taking copious notes and going line by line through a film with a friend to find anything that doesn’t make sense. After that, a script gets typed up where a few gags are written in, followed by a recording process that features a lot of improv to add more variety. In terms of technique, “Over the years I’ve mastered the art of intentionally awkward editing for comedy purposes. Jump cuts and hard edits have always made me laugh for some reason. It’s in a lot of my old short films. I gravitate towards the bizarre in terms of comedy and dark cynical humor so weird things like slightly odd editing makes me laugh.”

The humor itself is dark and dry, giving an interesting spin to the idea of a psychotically unreliable film critic. Jokes about murdering his ex-wife, tying up people in his basement, or mailing pizza rolls in paper envelopes are spliced into the longer discussions. My personal favorite is when Plinkett finishes giving a two minute rant about how dramatically ineffective the battle droids are and then shows a clip of George Lucas explaining how easily Jedis can kill them. Plinkett starts shouting, “FUCK YOU!“ before cutting to the next rant. The humor neatly resolves the problem that you’re always going to run into when deconstructing sci-fi: in a film where everything is made up, how do you reasonably say something doesn’t make sense? The answer is to not bother with sounding reasonable and just accept that you sound crazy.

Whether or not there should be limits on a fictional world is a very real question for someone who intends to go line by line through a sci-fi film and explain why it’s terrible. RedLetterMedia writes, “It's a balance between the established movie universe rules and what is just lazy screen writing. There's a point when you can get too nit picky about stuff and I think there is a gradient of how picky you can get. Something like Star Trek is really black and white because there is this established universe and rules. It's almost impossible for someone to write an airtight TNG feature given the established history. Something will always be wrong and there are a lot of things you have to write into a film in order to move the story along. You can't evaluate all options that a trek character can take based on all the precedence that has come before it. So some things are forgivable and some are not. Star Wars is a little grayer because it's a mix of fantasy and a lot of excuses can be made for things that are vague. Something like Lord of the Rings (if you ignore the details in the books and just look at them as movies) is pure fantasy and harder to nail down things that are wrong or contradictions. You also have to look at things from a screen writing perspective and have an understanding of movies too. What irks me more than any of that stuff is just sloppy writing. Stuff like weak character motivations, lapses in common sense and bad logic to advance the movie's plot. The Star Wars prequels are the best examples of this where you're mesmerized by all the visuals and excitement on screen, but if you really stop and listen you'll realize that almost every line and every action makes no sense and is just there to get to the next special effects scene.”

The thing that really makes these film reviews shine is that you can tell RedLetterMedia is an enormous fan of Star Wars and Star Trek. The videos feature scenes cut from throughout the original Star Wars trilogy and the Star Trek series both for reference and to show examples of their quality in contrast. It’s not really about mocking these films or explaining why they suck. It’s a breakdown of how they could have been better. Qui-Gon Jin doesn’t really need to be in The Phantom Menace. Star Trek: Nemesis is a shameless rip-off of Wraith of Kahn except without the character development or drama. This is the kind of critical discussion that can only come about after the hype and excitement has died off. That’s when the conversation can quit being about "Loved it" or "Hated it" and start to explore what the work actually meant.

He explains, ”This all started from me just having re-watched Star Trek: Generations and wanting to explain in detail why I thought it was a shitty movie. I've always hated that movie because I'm a big TNG fan and I thought they completely messed up the transition to the big screen from what was a really great TV show . . . People seemed to enjoy what I was doing so I kept doing it after that. I have never really been interested in movie reviewing in general just when it comes to movies that I have some kind of connection with. I can see a movie that's just bad and shrug my shoulders. If it's bad and it gets to me in some personal way I'll have more interest in breaking down why it was bad and what went wrong rather than just complaining about it how bad it is.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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