Wednesday, April 7, 2010

You Gotta Get a Gimmick

One of the most highly anticipated web videos to hit the internet this week is a movie review. And not just a movie review, but a ninety minute dissection of an eight-year old science-fiction film that has already been widely panned for wooden acting, chaotic direction, and uninspired special-effects. Of course, it helps that the reviewer is Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media, who takes on the persona of a deranged serial killer when bashing the cinematic objects of his disdain. And it also helps that the movie in question is "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," and the review is a direct follow-up to Stoklasa's widely lauded seventy minute "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" review.

Would-be movie reviewers should take note. The art of film critique may be in decline from the standpoint of the established, traditional, print-centric film reviewers who are watching their circulation numbers shrink, but out in the wilds of the Internet, it's alive and well. There's a new breed of fulminating film buffs out there who have learned to take advantage of rising prevalence of broadband connections, video sharing sites, cheap editing software, and podcasting tutorials. And the movie reviews they've spawned are quickly mutating into strange, new, innovative forms that were heretofore unthinkable.

Stoklasa's feature-length review of "Attack of the Clones," for example, is nearly as long as the subject of its scrutiny, a comprehensive catalogue of the film's perceived failings with dozens of examples provided by clips from multiple "Star Wars" films and other sources. It's also intercut with an original narrative where the serial killer reviewer terrorizes his latest female victim, eventually forcing her to watch the movie with him. Created with the Youtube format in mind, the review is neatly segmented into nine parts, each with an identifying title screen and often capped off by a cliffhanger at the end. It could have easily been released over a longer span of time as a serial.

Others have already built ongoing review programs around similarly novel reviewing conceits. One of the most successful of them has been Spill.Com, run by animator Korey Coleman. Each show gathers two to five reviewers to discuss new releases every week, edits down the conversations to roughly five or six minutes per film, and then creates a cartoon short version using Flash animation. The format is very simple, with the caricatures of the reviewers mostly sitting around and talking, plus a gag or two to liven things up. The resulting reviews are a little rough at times, but very consistent and well executed considering the extremely limited turn around time.

Traditionalists may groan at the thought of any plebe with a webcam being able to upload their own movie reviews, but it's also forced the ambitious ones to get creative in order to rise above the pack. Nascent critics are trying out any and every possible gimmick to attract eyeballs, from adopting fictional personas to coupling their commentary with original material. Movie reviews, that have always allowed the limited use of film clips, are also an obvious draw for the mash-up generation, who have been quick to push the boundaries of the intellectual property fair use exception at every turn. And without the limits imposed by mainstream media outlets, reviewers can be as profane, extreme, experimental, or just plain long winded as they want to be. And slowly but surely, reviews are becoming pieces of entertainment in and of themselves.

To be honest, Red Letter Media's "Star Wars prequel reviews are not to my taste. I think the guy is talented and has real insight, but the serial killer shtick makes me queasy. However, he is setting the bar higher for those who follow him, so he has my full support. Blurring the line between film commentary and film art seems like such an obvious path to go down, I'm a little surprised it's taken people this long to start experimenting. Whether this is a good or bad thing for film criticism in the long run remains to be seen, but it sure is exciting to see the paradigm starting to shift.

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