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So I'm browsing through Filmschoolrejects this morning, when the following headline catches my eye: Kevin Smith Turning Movie Website Comment Sections Into a Show. The article is talking about "Spoilers," the just announced Hulu exclusive series that Smith will be premiering later in the summer. After reading the associated Deadline and Wired articles, this is going to be a movie talk show of sorts, with major segments reviewing and discussing recent mainstream movies, and smaller bits for guest filmmakers and a Criterion corner - Hulu is hosting a good chunk of the Criterion Collection on its site, remember.

I wouldn't characterize "Spoilers" as a "comment section brought to life" though. For one thing, the show's contributors, a passel of fifty film geeks that Smith is in the process of rounding up, won't be anonymous. The anonymity is an important component of most online fandom interactions, as it frees people up to be more profane and non-PC and altogether more honest than they would be offline. Online discussion groups are varied in character from the low-brow, young male id driven Ain't it Cool News, to the more thoughtful crowd that frequents the AV Club. Suppressing participants' ruder impulses would affect one more than the other, but there would be a significant impact on both. Think of the recent spate of celebrities who have gotten themselves in trouble by shooting their mouths off on Twitter. Comments that wouldn't raise an eyebrow if they were coming from an account bearing an obvious pseudonym suddenly have a lot more weight when they're attributable to a real person.

And then you've got the in-jokes and the off-topic tangents and the memes and the grudges and the nutcases who keep popping up in discussion after discussion, all things that help the best forums and message boards and comment sections really develop into their own little communities. You'd get little to none of this community-building in a TV show or web series, which would be beholden to certain time constraints and format considerations. We might become familiar with some of the more prominent contributors, but it just wouldn't be the same. The only way you're getting a show that is a "comment section brought to life" is if you hire a couple of actors to do selected readings from a real one. And frankly, that would make for a pretty tedious series.

It looks like what Smith is really trying to do here is create a more populist version of a traditional review show, using a forum of fifty participants to interact with, instead of the more familiar two-man format, or a small panel of critics. Logistically, I'm not sure how this is all going to work. Are they going to let the roomful of opinionated film geeks just go at it by themselves free-form for a few hours, and then assemble the show from the most interesting arguments? Are they going to have Kevin Smith lead the thing like a class discussion? Are they going to spotlight a few movie geeks each week, or let a few of the loudest voices and strongest personalities dominate, as they always do in these situations? There are going to be a lot of bumps to work out, but the mass participation is an interesting idea and I'm curious to see how Smith and his collaborators are going to realize it. Sure sounds like it could be a lot of fun.

Kevin Smith also has a second season of his "Comic Book Men" unscripted show for AMC in the works, and together with "Spoilers" it looks like the director has found a good post-directing niche for himself on television/whatever the hell Hulu is. I'm generally not very keen on shows about fanboy culture, which can get indulgent and silly very quickly, but if they're going down that road, better that they have someone like Kevin Smith in charge, who at least knows what he's talking about. I'd rather he continue directing movies, especially as "Red State" showed that Smith is very capable working outside of his own little Askewniverse, but I it's nice to have him around in any capacity. As for "Spoilers," I doubt that it'll be a replacement for the sorely missed "At the Movies," but it could certainly help to start filling the void.

And Kevin Smith touting the Criterion Collection? Potentially discussing the merits of Godard and Truffaut? This I've got to see.
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Kevin Smith's problems with Southwest Airlines made a splash this week, but I was more surprised to learn that he has a new movie hitting theaters soon - "Cop Out," a buddy-cop film starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. After watching the trailer and taking measure of the buzz, it doesn't look promising. If Kevin Smith's name weren't linked to the picture I'd have passed it over as some studio exec's sad attempt to resurrect the glory days of "48 Hours" and "Midnight Run." It's being sold as completely generic comedy, way outside the realm of Kevin Smith's trademark New Jersey slacker milieu.

Or to put it more bluntly, WTF? Why is Kevin Smith directing such a bland-looking commercial studio picture? Has he sold out (again)? Gone into a creative tailspin a la John Hughes?

It's simpler than that. Smith made it very clear that he got tired of making the low-budget indie "Askewniverse" films that brought him fame, and has been doggedly trying to tackle more mainstream material over the last few years. He's been working steadily, but none of his films have found much traction out there. The trouble is that his filmmaking sensibilities don't fit in with the rigid, narrow little categories of movies that are considered acceptable by Hollywood. He's never really found a way to adapt his considerable talents to bigger, slicker features.

His non-"Askewniverse" films have been notorious flops. "Jersey Girl" was a sentimental family drama nobody wanted to see - neither Smith's usual audience nor the older demographic that similar films are usually aimed at. He came closer with "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," which was sold as a Judd Apatow-style raunchy rom-com, but it wore its geek-cred on its sleeve and came off as more than a little skeevy. Ironically Apatow owes a lot to Smith for pushing the envelope on adult content - but Apatow never went nearly as far. It's not a good sign when a director's best recent work has been as an actor (in the latest "Die Hard" and "Catch and Release").

After striking out twice with rom-coms, a buddy-cop comedy makes sense as something new to try that would still be in Smith's comfort zone. As much as his fans would love it, no one's going to let him near a superhero film, which are largely based on visual strengths that Smith has never demonstrated any affinity for as a director. I'm not saying it's impossible, but there's a big gap that needs to be bridged. "Cop Out" actually might be a step in the right direction, since we can probably expect some action sequences to fill in the pauses between the banter. But with so little of the director's usual flourishes coming through in the marketing, I'm getting worried that he might have reined himself in too much.

I have to hope for the best, since I like Kevin Smith. He made at least one really great film and inspired several others. There have been indie directors like Sam Raimi and Christoper Nolan who made the jump to the mainstream successfully without losing themselves artistically. Since Kevin Smith can work a small budget and has a loyal fanbase, he certainly won't run out of chances anytime soon.


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May 2014

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