Tag Archives: action movies

“Game Changers”

Watching Pacific Rim last Friday made me wonder: What constitutes a 21st century sci-fi “game changer”? What determines the kind of movie that gets labeled “instantly iconic” or “revolutionary,” that accumulates a fandom by the end of its first weekend in release? Pacific Rim, for example—whose goofy kid-in-a-bathtub mayhem I really enjoyed—struck me as kin to a couple of other recent movies, Avatar and Inception. Here’s what the three have in common:

  • They’re written and directed by men with considerable nerd cachet. (Co-written, in the case of Pacific Rim.) They all started life as “original” projects, but are banking on audience members’ knowledge of their auteurs—and willingness to see anything from the mind behind AliensThe Dark Knight, or Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • That “original” status. Although all three draw heavily from their sci-fi forebears, they’re brand new properties, with minimalist titles calculated to tease. At least prior to their respective releases, they all looked new, mysterious, and intriguing.
  • The near-future worlds crafted for these movies are all dependent on CGI for their size and detail. Each of these worlds also centers on a series of conceits—e.g. avatars, dream theft, drifting—meant to hook the viewer, with “rules” which must be explained via endless exposition.
  • Brooding, recently bereaved white men headline these movies, each of them leading a team on a redemptive mission. Outside of a few minor flourishes in Inception, they’re all very conventionally plotted, with conflicts that are easy to grab hold of: “natives vs. imperialists,” “thieves vs. the mind,” and of course “robots vs. monsters.”
  • As decidedly PG-13 action movies, they lack any sexuality (beyond a single chaste scene in Avatar) or graphic violence. They disengage from the reality of human bodies, opting to make them one more glossy component of these digital fantasy worlds instead.
  • Given their shared interest in charting the mind’s interior and playing with characters’ identities, they’re all indebted to the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as to The Matrix—their most obvious predecessor as far as conceit-driven sci-fi sagas go.

None of these traits are inherently negative, but together they do lay out some very narrow parameters for Event Movie sci-fi. I don’t expect to be blowing any minds here, but given how familiar these three films’ stories, ideas, and visual grammar are from countless earlier movies, maybe (just maybe) “game-changing” has less to do with content and more to do with packaging.

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On Vulgar Auteurism

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)”

“Not so much a movement as a loose form of advocacy, it celebrates undervalued craft in critically overlooked genres, as well as the termitic properties of the best works.” Jake Cole

“[T]he term generally refers to unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode—filmmakers like [Justin] Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.” Calum Marsh

“Vulgar auteurism simply seems to be a way for people to intellectualise their guilty pleasures.” Craig Williams

Vulgar Auteurism, often abbreviated “VA,” is a critical outlook that’s been gaining traction (and fomenting controversy) over the past couple of years. The above quotes define it from a few different angles. I’ve been also been repeatedly pointed to Jack Lehtonen’s “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide,” which didn’t coin the term, but—with its collection of screenshots, director names, and movie titles—seems to have helped codify its meaning. (It’s the second Google result for the term, right beneath the “Vulgar Auteurism” Tumblr that Lehtonen co-curates, which was my source for the image above.)

VA has been gradually embraced, “particularly among young critics” as Marsh notes. But it has also been roundly derided as contrarian, cliquish, and redundant, the latter because plain old auteur theory already covers the filmmakers in question. I think the truth of these charges varies, especially since VA’s practitioners are themselves anything but unified, falling all over the map in terms of the approach and quality of their writing. Some speak ardently for movies that, according to received wisdom (my bête noire), merit kneejerk dismissal; others lean so hard on the value of image-making that it’s as if coherent plotting and dialogue had suddenly become vices—symbols of a tradition de qualité that vulgar cinema has displaced. (See the eloquent Sean Gilman for more on this.)

At its worst, I believe VA writing gives excess attention to dumb action movies in a media landscape already dominated by the loud and masculine. It overclaims so insistently that I begin to sense a persecution complex on behalf of movies that are, in reality, high-grossing and well-loved. But that’s at its worst. Personally, what I’ve read on VA and its adherents’ still-developing canon leaves me skeptical but curious. Part of that curiosity is probably because of my inexperience with these movies: for the most part, directors like Tony Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson remain unknown quantities for me, so essays like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses” intrigue me; they make me want to dip my toes in and learn for myself the veracity of these critical claims.

My own tastes may not automatically gravitate toward these frenetic spectacles, but that doesn’t mean I can’t scour them for points of interest. Even if a movie is frivolous, stupid, or awful, it can still provide some out-of-nowhere beauty, and I love being startled in the middle of a movie I’d never call “great” by some image or another that sways me, shakes me, grabs me by the neck. At its best, Vulgar Auteurism seems to be about this phenomenon, and about doing what good critics should do: giving every movie a chance, regardless of subject matter or provenance, and examining them from different angles. Whether or not the label is necessary, that particular inclination strikes me as an absolute good.

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Spaced Out

Not every movie can be great (or good). Most, in fact, end up in a long line of generic mediocrities, playing on cable for years with built-in lowered expectations. Movies like Space Jail (2012)—whose title is actually Lockout, but come on—which is coded as “standard genre fare” so bluntly it’s almost endearing. It stars Guy Pearce (mmm Guy Pearce) as Snow, an ex-CIA operative trying to clear his own name, and it takes place in a dingy, corrupt future that seems to exist solely as a backdrop for misadventures like these. The kind of future where no one seems to have a house or a 9-to-5 job, but the government can invest zillions of dollars in a supermax prison orbiting the earth.

The president’s daughter, of course, is drawn to said space jail like a moth to the flame, making a humanitarian visit that goes horribly awry. Next thing you know, she’s trapped among hundreds of rioting space-prisoners, the cynical Snow is sent in to rescue her, and Space Jail is well on its way toward following Escape from New York’s blueprints beat for beat. But to my surprise, the film has a single twist in store: once Snow and the first daughter cross paths, it becomes less a John Carpenter rip-off and more a remake of It Happened One Night… in space. Same opposites-attract story of sheltered rich girl vs. seen-it-all roughneck, same on-the-run banter, even near-identical gender politics despite being made eight decades apart.

So Space Jail’s syntax is that of the “fugitive lovers” romcom, overlaid with every visual cliché an action movie can sport. Claustrophobic ventilation shafts! Chasms inexplicably built into the jail! Dim blue lighting and orange explosions! It’s all exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect from the words “space jail,” right down to a fun but credibility-straining climax. Nothing new or remotely intelligent on display here, but I like it. Maybe it’s Pearce’s gruff wisecracking. Or maybe it’s the “get in, get out, get it over with” mentality of the filmmaking: this is self-evidently a factory product, 90 minutes of set pieces and MacGuffins not intended to outlast April 2012, yet here I am months later chuckling at its absurdities.

Despite the hugeness of its spectacle, Space Jail feels small and grungy. It’s the first feature for either of its directors, James Mather and Stephen St. Leger; it was shot in Belgrade; and its digital effects are shoddy at best. It feels made to slip through the cracks, and I appreciate that, as well as its tone—the casual bleakness of its future, the use of violence as a tool to skip past obstacles and toward objectives. Space Jail’s mediocre through and through, but I can’t help thinking it’s the kind of movie Snake Plissken would make.

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Get Moving

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing really wrong with Fast Five. It’s dumb as dirt, sure, and it embraces all the hoariest action movie clichés. It makes Rio de Janeiro out to be a hillside aggregation of crime-ridden slums, and it treats women as interchangeable T&A, the fleshy equivalents of fast cars. Still, it’s trashy fun that delivers on its promise of gunfire and Vin Diesel in tight shirts. The characters share a rough-and-tumble camaraderie as they plot their $100 million heist, exchanging Predator-style hand clasps and basking in Diesel’s goofy grins. Affable and generic for the most part, Fast Five peaks with its climactic set-piece—a high-speed chase that harks back to Buster Keaton.

So I have nothing against Fast Five, but I still flinched when Time film critic Richard Corliss listed it as #10 in his “Top 10 Best Movies of 2011.” Which I assume was his point. The rest of his list—The Tree of Life, Hugo, The Artist, etc.—comprises a pretty standard, amiable summation of The Year in Film. Fast Five is his bold, counterintuitive choice: an olive branch to blockbuster-loving readers, maybe, or a gesture of mild defiance to the critical establishment. In your face, “sensitive indie dramas!” Fast Five has more “craft and cojones” than you ever will, you effete piles of mush.

And, you know, that’s cool. It’s Corliss’s prerogative. It’s his list. I think it’s stupid to refer to such a melodramatic, cookie-cutter action movie as the “first great film of the post-human era,” but whatever. Maybe he really, truly loves Fast Five. No, my real grievance lies with The Guardian, which asked (in response to Corliss’s list), “Would Fast Five make your top 10 films of 2011?” Let’s make no bones about it: this is a really shitty article. You have been warned. And now I’m going to do perform some close reading:

  • It starts out bemoaning the sameness of year-end lists. That’s a totally legitimate complaint to make, except 1) author Stuart Heritage uses the phrase “dutifully chronicling,” assuming a total lack of passion in everyone’s top 10 lists and 2) he draws a dichotomy between “prestigious middlebrow Oscar-bait” (i.e, boring) and “big summer marquee blockbusters” (not-boring). So yeah, he’s lumping every low-budget or non-franchise movie together under the heading “Oscar bait.”
  • The next two paragraphs are brimming with mock surprise at Corliss’s audacity. They say that he “remembered films that people actually went to see”—because, of course, critics or cinephiles who go to see artsy movies don’t count as people.
  • Heritage asserts that Fast Five is “undeniably fun,” then derides Drive as basically Fast Five rendered boring through artsy pretensions. He also employs those essential weasel words “There is an argument, perhaps…” (Own up to your worthless claims, man!)
  • The next paragraph is a classic: it alludes to “films that have been written and produced specifically to win awards,” then cites The Skin I Live In, Margaret, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. By “win awards” does he mean “take artistic risks and thereby earn critical accolades”? Does he know anything about those specific movies or about awards season? “It almost seems like a validation of brainless popcorn flicks,” he says of Corliss’s list. Almost seems. Two words that tell us nothing.
  • This disingenuous, faux-rebellious article ends by declaring “amnesty.” That’s right: people are allowed to express fondness for popular, profitable movies again! Fie on you, critics, for making us ashamed to love Thor. Never again!

Before I rant on, I should add that if this were posted on some random asshole’s blog, I wouldn’t blink. But this was posted by the fucking Guardian. 44,000 people saw it linked to on Twitter. This piece received 52 comments. And it’s meant to pass as professional film journalism. That’s just bullshit. I’m all for genuine populism, for recognizing genius in lowbrow movies. (Hell, I’m second to no one in my love for Chopping Mall.) But that Guardian piece’s unspoken thesis is that we should collectively disregard any movie with a modicum of artistic ambition. Fast Five is good enough, and “good enough” is the new “great.”

You know why people “actually went to see” Fast Five and Transformers 3 and The Smurfs? Saturation marketing. Because they were advertised ad nauseum, and then opened in multiplexes nationwide. Margaret, meanwhile, was dumped into 14 theaters by Fox Searchlight. Notorious piece of Oscar bait, that. These simple circumstances give the lie to Heritage’s whole pseudo-populist agenda. He’s set up a false hegemony—i.e., “Critical groupthink only supports boring, artsy movies!”—when in reality, this is about publicity and access. It’s about real, active critics vs. the stultifying power of ad dollars.

When critics endorse mediocrities because they’re “good enough” (or from fear of looking elitist), they’re no longer critics. They’re just adjuncts to studio publicity. Criticism is about drawing attention to great cinema even though most such movies are, yes, artsy and in limited release. If you can’t countenance praise for movies that nobody “actually went to see,” then I’m really sorry, but you have nothing meaningful to say about movies.

Incidentally, Corliss later released some “Filthy Secrets” about his list-making process. He explains that “indie or foreign art-house films… with important exceptions, are going through a static or mopey phase,” gets in a dig at A Separation, then clarifies that Fast Five “did what movies should do: move.” Movies are supposed to move. Maybe all those mopey art films will keep that in mind next time, and splurge on some car chases. Thanks for the advice, Richard Corliss.

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Link Dump: #43

This week’s kitty is being played with by some Thai kids in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon. It’s totally unrelated to the substance of the film, but who cares? It’s a kitty! And as usual, it’s followed by a series of really great links:

We had a few epically odd search terms this past week, like the bizarrely misspelled and redundant “inside veiw of a pragnant womans pussy insides.” And “كرتون كايوتك سكس,” which is apparently Arabic for “Cartoon Sex Cayotk,” whatever that means. Unfortunately, I have to close with the most uncomfortable search term of the week, and possibly all time: “the joys of fucking your daughter.” Yeah.

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