Critical Pic Condition

An army of wordy Web reviewers makes it easy to dismiss 'Net critics

Imagine for a moment a Sunday newspaper ad for a hot movie with no ellipses, no exclamation marks, no single word descriptions and no mention of Susan Granger or Paul Wunder.

Imagine in its place, lengthy in-depth quotes that are never taken out of context; wordy splotches that encapsulate the tenor of a film and take their time to extol the virtues of a work rather than nail it in one passionate word or phrase.

Seemingly, dot-com movie reviewers are treating the written word as if they have been knighted by Pauline Kael, proffering opinions with no fear that an editor will cut their work to fit it into a finite space. Web critics wax on, paying no heed to the thought that short and pithy would be their ticket to the big time.

And perhaps that explains why few online critics have reached the status of a “must-read.” Despite the efforts of an online critics association, there aren’t any names that even start to approach the level of regional film critics.

Sure there’s Harry Knowles (aintitcoolnews.com), but that site has turned into an isolated monster unto itself. While the Knowles technique — which begins with reader comments from test screenings — is unique, it does show how much the studios concern themselves about early leaks and what they’ll do to control them. No Web critic boasts power like Knowles, partially because the film lords have attempted to convert him from studio enemy No. 1 to friend of the filmgoers through a load of standard-issue graft, including journalist-only junkets and screenings.

No one has created a model quite like Knowles, who taps into the very fear that undermines and overrides the marketing mavens’ countless decisions.

Knolwes succeeded by refusing to play by the rules established by the studios for the print media — and he wins. Other dot-commentators, constantly awash in seriousness, generally end up appealing to specific fans rather than the audience as a whole as they are validated by preaching to a choir; the writing is another matter altogether.

Historical perspective

Ads for the Mel Gibson-starrer “The Patriot” boast an impressive quote from Peter Travers of Rolling Stone: “A thunderous spectacle.” Right there the studio, Columbia Pictures, gets what it wants: Don’t think of this as a period piece, think of it as “Die Hard” in old clothes. And they don’t even have to say it.

But what if they had to turn to some of online’s finest?

Take the Flickfilosopher report. (flickfilosopher.com) “This is the best kind of old-fashioned filmmaking: grand and epic yet intimate and personal, full of angst-ridden good guys and hiss-worthy bad guys.” Condense the quote to “epic”? That makes it sound long and boring, which is what Columbia wants to avoid.

At the beginning of a mixed review, Spliced Online (splicedonline.com) called “The Patriot” “relentlessly unoriginal, pandering and predictable.” (Curiously, it gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars). Culturevulture.net panned it by saying, “Theoretically, there should be dozens of worthy stories from the era suitable for big-screen treatment. You won’t find any of them here, though.” Then, just to prove amateurism is still a hallmark of the Internet, atnzone.com let ’em have it: “Another problem I had was with the ending. But … I won’t get into details.”

As Web sites find themselves more compelled to validate themselves to investors it would seem only likely that they would take the occasional easy road toward recognition. It’s downright odd that no online movie critic has made him or herself an instant hit with the blurb writers. Are they operating that far outside the system?

Collectively, the film sites have had a huge impact on movie operations. Most significantly, international releases have been moved far forward to ride the wake of publicity generated by the domestic opening. Film sites have proved themselves adept at chronicling a movie’s creation, casting, filming and release; and with every main media outlet available online, those junket roundtables and premiere parties now have global implications.

The reviews, however, have been slow to follow suit.

Yet it’s movie criticism that has been the one entertainment area that has taken its role seriously. Music sites are either the equivalent of a print publication; linked to an e-tailer (which makes many a review suspect); or so overloaded with fans’ ramblings that it’s hard to discern which opinion is most in line with yours. Jazzreview.com recently printed, in all capital letters, “As I sit and listen to Culbertson on this CD I am impressed with his selection of songs.” Real reviewers don’t use “I.”

Someday, a reviewer is going to take a hint from the guys who write pornography reviews. Scene after scene is described chronologically and with precision. No guess work, no surprise endings, extra detail when it warrants it, but nothing that can be reduced to a quick-hit quote either.

Isn’t that exactly what the cineastes want?

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