Monthly Archives: March 2014

I’ve been streaming movies and here’s what I think of them

Look, I’m a few beers in, so this might be a little rambly because I’m not sure I want to do reviews for three (a fourth tomorrow) movies that everybody else saw when they came out. I might, though. Until then, let me just dole out a few thoughts in the interest of sparking conversation and getting hits on my blog.

1. Hunger (Dir. Steve McQueen, 2009)

Before Oscar noticed he was awesome with 12 Years a Slave, McQueen hooked up with his now perennial collaborator Michael Fassbender for this tale about Irish Republicans rebelling in Maze Prison in 1981. McQueen employs his usual arsenal of long takes that exacerbate the harrowing display of human suffering, with Fassbender delivering a mesmerizing performance. It’s emblematic of all of their work together (I haven’t seen Shame but fans of that movie say it’s also hard to watch and about human suffering) and doesn’t leave the mind easily.

2. Lost in Translation (Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003)

As the daughter of great-filmmaker-for-one-decade and legendary asshole Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia had some big shoes to fill. This is her second feature film and it’s her most revered. You probably already know how beautiful it is. Her camera captures the isolation of the characters played by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray with such keen authenticity and melancholy, it’s hard not to tear up. Especially if you know you’ve been there. But it’s not all dour sadness; the moments of levity add to the sadness of their loneliness. Coppola knows what she’s doing here. And so does the cast. Murray perfectly transplants his deadpan cadence into a forlorn older man who just wants someone he can talk to. Johansson plays a similarly-minded young woman whose husband neglects her while the jobless philosophy-major walks around Tokyo looking for friendship. A charming, empathetic movie.

3. The Fountain (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

I have no idea what I watched but I really, really liked it. Aronofsky’s millenium-spanning (or is it?), space-traveling (or does it?) love story is a fascinating, baffling, and beautifully-shot epic. I’m confounded in a way I love to be confounded; I don’t feel like the movie withheld information from me to artificially create tension, but instead is so deeply layered and symbolic that I need to re-watch it. And I want to. In an early scene, Hugh Jackman, as a bald space-monk floating with a giant tree toward a nebula in space, levitates upward before the film dissolves to the present day. Combined with the fact that it has the same color palette as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I was in the bag for this movie from the beginning.

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The Feminism of “Dredd”

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Big spoilers for Dredd. Watch the movie before you read.

As if I didn’t say enough about Pete Travis’s Dredd, the 2012 adaptation of the 2000 AD comic book character. Travis and writer Alex Garland made a thoroughly cartoonish, yet deceptively intelligent action movie that gave no fucks about what it was and wholeheartedly embraced its identity as a gory throwback to 1980s action cinema. But the more I think about Dredd, the more I find within. On second viewing, I found a film that criticizes the main character’s black and white view of law and order, and now I’m thinking there’s even more to it.

JudgeAndersonDreddThe character who acts as the counterpoint to Dredd’s cold and uncompromising view of the world is Anderson, the female new recruit with psychic powers. Her powers allow her to breach into the mind of a target at will, and gain some key information and even manipulate them. She can’t control them, but she can read and confuse them, as she does with the duo’s cuffed drug dealer, Kay.

The big fish of the movie, the villain controlling everything, is Ma-Ma. She is a stunningly sadistic and vicious psychopath who rose through the ranks rapidly. She started as just a prostitute, but through cunning and guile, she fought her way to the top. Both of these female characters are powerful in their own rights and command respect, although Anderson doesn’t really earn that respect until the third act, whereas the film establishes Ma-Ma as a figure not to be fucked with from the very beginning.

The movie places Anderson between these two powerful figures, who sort of function as a belligerent mom-and-dad combo, with Anderson playing the green and naive surrogate daughter. And while Dad comes out on top, it’s Anderson who has the final word. She provides the unexpected act of ethics that, by the rules of the Judges, should fail her. However, Dredd notes, in the final words of the film, that “she’s a pass.”

Why would Dredd, such a stone-cold character who so unwaveringly believes in the absoluteness of the Judge’s laws, allow this transgression to not just go unpunished, but reward it? Because he has trusted her judgment. And by extension, so has the film. Dredd the movie gives Anderson, the female character, the moral high ground while simultaneously placing another female at the complete other end of the moral spectrum. The movie provides two female characters as the counterpoints to ideological struggle; sadism vs. empathy, cold logic vs. humane compassion, etc. Dredd starts off the film much closer to Ma-Ma’s end of the spectrum. He kills brutally throughout the film, but it’s to protect innocents. However, he feels no vindication in it; he just does his job. Anderson comes along and shakes that up.

judgeanderson2Instead of killing Ma-Ma’s operator, whom she has tortured by removing his eyes and terrified him throughout, Anderson lets him go, saying “he’s a victim.” Dredd would have thrown his ass in the iso-cubes and he tells her that her act constitutes a failure. But she doesn’t care. This would be a transgression in the film’s world and, in allegorical sense, a transgression in our world. This act upsets the enforced patriarchy that our world has because she has disobeyed the male authority figure. In most films, Anderson would be punished. But she is not; she’s vindicated. She survives and she gains Judgeship.

As another act of female independence, she beats Kay mentally and physically. When she first breaks into his mind, he visualizes raping her in order to scare her. However, she quickly regains control and tricks him into giving up the crucial information she and Dredd went to Peach Trees for in the first place. Then, in the third act, she kills him and the everybody else holding her hostage.

Women in cinema are almost never afforded this opportunity. They are usually to be rescued and/or defined by the male character. Instead, Anderson is her own character and works with Dredd’s characterization. They bounce off each other to create the film’s subtextual argument over the kind of justice Dredd exercises vs. the kind of justice, empathetic but effective, that Anderson later exercises.

Anderson’s empathy comes from her psychic powers. By infiltrating a person’s psyche, she gains understanding of their situation. Understanding breeds empathy, because it is what we don’t know that scares us most. Her knowledge of people’s dire situations gives her a compassion that Dredd lacks. This superior knowledge over a man and her ability to read minds also constitute a breach in the natural order of not just Dredd’s world, but ours, metaphorically. She can invade privacy, convince you of things that aren’t real, and fuck with you in ways that will literally end you. Since she’s a woman, that upsets the patriarchal view that “men have the power.” As I said before and as Lara Mulvey wrote in her seminal essay “VIsual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” she would be punished. But she isn’t.

Ma-Ma

But while Ma-Ma is punished, it’s important to note that she isn’t punished for being a woman in a man’s world. Her judgment from Dredd and her subsequent punishment come from her criminality, not her femininity. It’s an act of genre, not misogyny. A man who performed all of the acts that she did in power would also get put down by Dredd. And even though I’m arguing this is a feminist movie, I think there are legitimately good narrative and thematic reasons as to why Dredd throws her out the window and Anderson doesn’t get to kill her for a couple reasons. One, it’s because the movie is called Dredd and not Anderson. Two, Anderson gets shot. But it’s mainly because Dredd was always going to be the one to carry out the film’s absolute, final punishment. He is the veteran and the firm believer in his system, after all. Anderson supposedly failed her test, as well, at that point.

But at the very end, Dredd says “she’s a pass.”  And while it is the male authoritative figure with the final word on her pass or fail, it is the female who has introduced the new ideas into the film’s fiction and the main character, who approves. To top it all off, Dredd’s superior is a woman, as well.

In my original review, I said “[Dredd’s] mission is not be a meaningful film.” I still believe that the original goal of the filmmakers was to make a simply “fun” movie, but I’ve discovered there is a lot of meaning in this otherwise unassuming movie. I won’t say it is a perfect vehicle for feminism. There are only five female characters with speaking lines, two of whom aren’t named and another one of whom is named simply “Chief Judge.” And the main character, the draw of the film, and the person gracing the poster is a dude. But in a landscape of bullshit and half-assery, Dredd looms large above them in quality and representation.

All Action Films are not Created Equal

I hear a lot of asinine dismissals of criticism when it comes to action movies. “Critics don’t like action movies,” or “what did you expect from an action movie?” are two of the sentiments that bother me. It’s not that critics and film snobs, and by extension, myself, dislike action movies; it’s that we dislike bad action movies. There is a difference. What makes a good action film is not how many explosions, corpses, or chases there are, but how well they’re executed. I know this sounds obvious to the film geeks out there, but it’s important to establish that little rule before we delve into what makes these kinds of movies work and dispel some commonly-held theories about the genre.

Another caveat before I actually start the discussion; “action” is a broad term, so when I use that term, I’m mentioning movies as far across the spectrum as Star Trek to Die Hard. Movies where action and unrealistic, life-endangering stakes are the real meat of the plot

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First and foremost: the action parts of an action movie are not as simple as sticking a camera somewhere and letting things blow up. Nor is superfluous directorial flair always the recommended tactic. J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay stage impressive set-pieces but don’t know how to compose worth a shit. Look at 2009 Star Trek for numerous bad examples of staging and composition. Dozens of scenes are rendered almost unwatchable because of the lenses flaring into the audience’s face. Seriously, watch that movie again. There’s a very good reason why people made lens flare jokes all the way up until Star Trek Into Darkness last year. In that film, Abrams actually composed his action scenes and let the audience see the impressive spectacle on display. However, both of those films fail very basic storytelling tenets.

There are a few basic elements to any good film: story, plot, character, and cinematography, editing, sound design, acting…ok, there are a lot of basic elements to a film. There’s no formula for a great movie, but I personally think that if all of these elements exist harmoniously, that is they form a cohesive whole, then we’ve got a good movie. One of the infuriating things I hear in regards to action movies is that character and plot don’t matter for a film’s quality. They very much matter! It’s just that they don’t always need to be “complex” to be good. Going back to Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s plot is very complex. And very stupid. None of it makes any goddamn sense. The Dark Knight does complexity and character right.

dreddposterAnd some action movies prove that simplicity is just as worthy a goal as complexity if it fits the tone and style of the movie. Dredd’’s plot can be boiled down to two words: kill Ma-Ma. And it works because the simplicity of the plot never becomes stupid. It’s lean, not empty. It’s cohesive, not messy. And it uses visuals to tell its story, thus negating the need for copious dialogue. The film defines its characters early, then its action, characters, and plot propel each other forward simultaneously.

Conversely, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’s story doesn’t have a very clear antagonist due to it’s plot’s mystery nature. But it works because the action is well-staged and well-paced enough to elicit alternating moments of exasperation and relief. On the writing side, the plot plays second-fiddle to the characters, who all have that typical “one defining trait” that works so well with action movies like this.

It’s not simply a manner of story vs. character vs. plot vs. action. It’s about how all those all coalesce into something coherent and whole. The best action movies balance these all and become singular piece, instead of an assemblage of random parts like Transformers. In that film, not only is the action skewed by a shaky camera and indistinct robot designs, but it tries to be too many things at once. It’s a comedy, then a character film, then a robots vs. robots film, then a government-conspiracy film for some reason. And then, none of those pieces coalesce fittingly.

And of course, not all action films have good action. When I criticize an action movie on its merits as an “action movie” I’m talking about it’s set-pieces. Star Trek isn’t just a bad movie because its story is idiotic and its characters are totally flat. It’s also bad because it’s action scenes suck. Aside from the terrible writing, it’s got terrible direction. As I said before, J.J. Abrams sticks so many lens flares into the camera that I thought I was having a seizure. And then he mistakenly thinks he can do what Paul Greengrass does, and nobody properly can, and shakes the camera too much. And amid all this, he’s still firing off lens flares into the camera at a supersonic rate, rendering a scene almost indecipherable.

The Raid, on the other hand, is framed perfectly. Like Dredd, it shows you everything you need. Every shot in that movie is composed to show you what you want to see and communicates the styles of each fighter, the narrowness of each corridor, and the vicious impact of each killing blow. Director Gareth Evans follows his characters with the camera ever so subtly during one-on-one standoffs, and whisks you away to follow them as they run to the next fight. The camera bobs and weaves following the balletic precision of their movements, keeping them in frame and being clear about it. And if that were all The Raid had going for it, it’d be a pretty good action movie. But everything else serves its action so well.

Characters in The Raid are defined quickly and concisely. Then, the movie gets on with it. Each fight moves the story forward. Action and narrative work harmoniously together instead of against each other for screen time. The best action movies are like this. The action has to texture the characterizations, who affect the plot, which motivates the action, which motivates the characters. There are exceptions and there are variations, but a film where all of its elements work together are the greats.

Not every action movie needs to be as elegantly shot as The Raid; as I said, Paul Greengrass makes extensive shaky cam work, but he seems to be the only one able to compose a shot with that model. Gary Ross rendered The Hunger Games a clusterfuck of blurry images, while the sequel ditches that technique and is all the better for it. Kathryn Bigelow’s last two films are examples of shaky cam in limited doses, as she opts for a handheld approach in certain scenes but keeps everything focused and choreographs her camerawork masterfully. Alfonso Cuaron goes the opposite direction and experiments with the long, long, looooong take and masterfully succeeds at building and holding tension with his action.

I write this because I get the impression that critics and audiences don’t give enough thought to how action films can and do work. The best ones aren’t merely passable entertainment, they’re goddamn masterworks. So why do we keep saying “eh, it’s just an action movie?”