30 Years later: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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I want to thank the 1980s for the multitude of truly great science-fiction films like Aliens, The Terminator, The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, Predator, and other films that I’m not remembering or haven’t even seen yet, like John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’d also like to thank it for the truly bizarre pieces of fantasy like Labyrinth. And last, but not least, I’d like to thank it for the two good Indiana Jones movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. 

Now, why did it have to give me Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom as well? On the 30th anniversary of the film’s original theatrical release, I can honestly say that I think it is an abominable piece of shit. But it’s kind of fascinating in the context of our nostalgia-soaked culture.

First, the movie. It’s awful. And it totally shouldn’t be. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the architects behind the very good Raiders of the Lost Ark, two very good friends who enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other, returned for another film in 1984 to for another romp. But it seems that the only real motivation was to.make a ton of money. It sure as hell wasn’t to expand on the character in any way. Because at the end of this prequel, we have learned literally nothing new about the title character. In fact, we’re left with more questions than answers: why did Indy say he didn’t believe in ghost stories in Raiders if he saw a dude’s heart catch on fire after it was ripped from his chest and he was still alive? Why does he not believe in ghosts when he was a clear victim of voodoo magic and blood-drinking brainwashing? Why the hell does this 40 year-old man run around with a Chinese sidekick? Why didn’t he take him to an orphanage?

The point of a prequel is to explain something about a character that we didn’t know about in a previous movie. Ironically enough, the Star Wars prequels did a better job at hashing out important main characters than ToD. Here, not only do we learn nothing about Indy, we learn nothing about any of his friends or family.

But those narrative faults aren’t what make this movie a catastrophe for two-thirds of its run time. And you know the element that I’m about to harp on.

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Kate Capshaw.

She gives maybe the most annoying, grating, unbearable, train-wreck-of-a-performance that I’ve ever seen. Willie Scott, thanks to her screeching and wailing, is an annoyance. Her character could have gone one of two ways: one, which is the wailing asshole that she is, or as a put-upon, exacerbated fish out of water trying to maintain her dignity. Vanity is ingrained in her character through the script (she’s always looking for jewels), and she could have come off as a much more nuanced character. Instead of wailing, she could just be grimacing. Instead of helplessly crying, she could be forcefully ordering. But Capshaw plays her as a whining housewife plucked from Orange County, whose almost too scared about breaking a nail to save people’s lives and she’s a gigantic prick throughout the movie.

Speaking of dick, she was also sleeping with director Steven Spielberg during filming, so not only did she ruin this already-bad movie, she also ruined a marriage. What a total reverse-course from the previous installment’s Marion Ravenwood.

And while he’s not nearly as suicide-inducingly bad as her, Short-Round pisses me off, as well. The film introduces us to him after a lengthy club sequence where Indy negotiates with Chinese gangsters over a diamond (WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING IN THIS FUCKING MOVIE?) and Indy basically kidnaps Willie. Seriously; he pulls a gun on her (only because she’s close, and she has no knowledge of what is going on here) and tries to use her as a bargaining chip. Later in the scene, Indy pulls his hostage out of a window while Short-Round pulls up in the nick of time to save Indy from a posthumous murder-suicide-racketeering charge.

Ok, so Short-Round proves his usefulness. Then, he speaks. And GODDAMNIT why does he have to sound like a such a prototypical “plucky” sidekick and slightly racist caricature? “Oki doki Dr. Jonesy!” “I touch nothing!”

OH GOD, MAKE IT STOP!

Thankfully, the main characters do finally shut up (which is never a phrase you should utter) and this movie does get better. The third act kicks up the action enough to where Spielberg throws a barrage of gore and violence at you. Spielberg has always been good at maintaining tension throughout action scenes and knowing just when to make the right cut or where to put the camera to capture the action.

Also, Temple of Doom really is shockingly violent at times, which is what defenders of the movie have accused haters of conflating with poor quality. “It’s just too dark for you” is a common retort. My retort to that is of course “no, it just sucks ass.”

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Indy is the same character throughout the movie, as are Short-Round and Scott. The white man saves the day with the help of his Asian sidekick and literally useless female companion (she does nothing but hinder Indy’s quest, except for the one time she punches a guy). We learn nothing about the titular character.

Well, maybe that’s not true. We learn that he’s a MAJOR pussy-hound who will go after any attractive woman, no matter how insufferable she is. At least Elsa had some brass.

IT’S NOT QUALITY, IT’S MEMORY

Nostalgia holds sway over people like a disease. It hinders critical thought. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes it as “homesickness” or “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Essentially, nostalgia is a longing for the past, as I’ve said before.

We all like to get a little nostalgic about some past part of our lives. And it’s easy to associate a product with that nostalgia because it conjures up pleasant memories of an innocent time in our lives. But there comes a point where the memory has overridden the senses. I get that you may not be as annoyed with Kate Capshaw as I am, but even looking past that, think of what the character contributes to the story: nothing. She doesn’t help Indy, she doesn’t add dimension to any of the other characters or proceedings, and she doesn’t have trait besides being a one-note screeching banshee.

It really is an example of just how empty blockbusters can be. With no illumination of our main character and total disregard for its own world and its audience’s own tolerance, Temple of Doom is one of those 1980’s films that exists as a monument in the generational debate; where nostalgia, memory, and perspective conflate with quality and analysis. And where there might be no end to the conversation. So sound off in those comments!

The Subversion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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SPOILERS BELOW. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE. ALSO, GO SEE THE MOVIE. IT’S AWESOME.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel solo movie, and maybe the best Marvel movie period. Its balance of action and story, plot and character are examples of Doing it Right. It gives ample time to show multiple facets of its important side characters, all but one of whom aren’t white men. And while the titular Winter Soldier is the one that gets sidelined in favor of another “save the world” plot, at least what the world needs saving from is fascinating.

HYDRA takes over S.H.I.E.L.D. for the purposes of protecting humanity from itself. Armin Zola argues that humanity can’t be trusted with its own freedom. And that World War II taught him and his HYDRA cohorts that humanity needed to be convinced to voluntarily give up their freedom. And he does all of this as a Fallout-style computer that he downloaded his brain into.

Yup. Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses a gleefully pulpy, 1950’s sci-fi convention to make the point that people have traded in their freedom for the illusion of security. It’s a popular topic of conversation in the political and sociological sphere, and for good reason. We are giving up our freedoms; the Patriot Act and the NDAA are just two examples of the effects of our continued complacency.

The movie basically gives its audience a giant middle finger with the most comic-book-ass-comic-book trope I can imagine. A trope borrowed from 50’s sci-fi and kind of out of place for the otherwise grounded The Winter Soldier. It marries its juvenile (and awesome) roots with genuine political awareness. Maybe in a hokey sort of way, but it does it. But this isn’t the only aspect of the movie that subverts our expectations.

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Did you think Capt. America was a square? A jingoistic jackass who only served his purpose in the era of World War II? So did I, until Captain America: The First Avenger. That movie made me realize this character isn’t the jingoistic “America is right” caricature I assumed he would be. Or at least, he isn’t that anymore and won’t be in the movies. But it’s The Winter Soldier that makes me a genuine fan.

As Bob Chipman points out in his review for the Escapist, you can’t NOT get political in a movie that takes place in a post-9/11 world and whose main character is named Capt. America. There is going to be an unavoidable subtext no matter what the character does. But by making Cap the guy who questions the government’s tactics of preemptive strike and lack of transparency, he becomes an antagonist for how the real government operates. Capt. America sometimes has to fight America.

And the fact that it’s HYDRA pulling the strings implicates the US in a different way. In the movie, Zola mentions Operation Paperclip, a government operation that brought Nazi scientists to America. This was a real thing that the US did. By merging this bit of reality with the movie’s fiction, the movie insinuates that the US, in real life, has succumbed just as much S.H.I.E.L.D. has to Nazi influence. Or almost as much. Obama’s not building giant helicarriers. He does have a lot of drones, though.

Steve Rogers is the embodiment of all of the good ideals that we, as Americans, like to aspire to: a perfect outside masking intelligence, self-confident, selfless, and eminently just human being. And while he is the leader, he surrounds himself with two black men and two women as his only confidants. Diversity surrounds the Captain and it’s these people who save the day with him. He has no qualms about race or gender and he’s against the fear-mongering that has taken over his government. He’s a progressive, and in that sense, he’s only a man out of time because he’s still apparently too progressive even for our world, whose leaders are still terrified of minorities and women having power.

I was starting to get a little worried about Marvel. Iron Man 3 came off as a movie that wasn’t willing to go deep into itself or its characters, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is infuriatingly safe on most weeks. But The Winter Soldier ups the ante on everything. I was never off the Marvel Movie Train, but now I’m starting to enjoy the ride again.

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.

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.

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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?”

Catching Fire is great; the way Lionsgate uses Catching Fire is gross as hell

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Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought the first film was too poorly shot, had some lousy supporting turns, and didn’t offer a deep enough exploration of its subject matter. Catching Fire fixed virtually all of that and my opinion has only improved with subsequent mental revisits. While I might write a separate article detailing why I like it so much, I want to bring to your attention the ancillary aspects that are actually just fucking gross.

MARKETING

I have no problem with marketing in and of itself. You got to sell your product and there are trained, intelligent people who exist to sell things. This could be good or bad, depending on what they’re selling and how they’re selling. With Catching Fire, we have both: what Lionsgate, the studio bankrolling and distributing the film, is selling is really good. But how it’s selling it is disgusting and contradictory of the very themes of the material.

My eyebrow raised first when I started seeing advertisements for the movie’s soundtrack, which features Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, and Christina Aguilera. Glancing down the track list, I saw a bevy of pop bands, most of whom had just gained their fame. The soundtrack feels like a cash-in on popular names in a cynical attempt to synergize those names with a popular movie without looking for music that really fits the tone and themes of the movie. I felt that Lionsgate either didn’t know or care what it was doing with this.

But the soundtrack isn’t what set off the alarms in my brain. This piece by Devin Faraci at Badass Digest illuminated me on how flip Lionsgate is about its property. It threw an extravagant, lavish party to celebrate a movie that is about overthrowing the rich. Faraci aptly states that “cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to describe [it]” in his article.

What we have here is a case of art and commerce benefiting each other as they simultaneously contradict each other. That’s the dissonance. The film about overthrowing the rich is making rich people richer, and the extravagant marketing budget is making a genuinely good film, made by genuinely talented and passionate artists, more ingrained in the public consciousness. For a simply “good movie,” that’s expected and necessary. But for an excellent one starring a female lead, that’s reason to celebrate.

I’m not surprised a corporation would celebrate the guaranteed sell that is Catching Fire, but this still bugs the shit out of me. This is a movie about the desolation of the poor and how the rich uses clever messaging and popular culture to distract society from its problems. I don’t know Lionsgate executives see this themselves, but I’m getting blurry vision already.

Dredd: My favorite comic book film of 2012

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From the moment its title screen literally explodes into view, accompanied by Paul Leonard Morgan’s dirty, vicious industrial-metal score, Dredd embarks on a mission. The mission is not to be a meaningful film, a film with the biggest scale, or even one that wows audiences with impressive CGI. Instead, the mission is simple: be fun.

It’s a refreshingly simple mission that too many action films neglect in favor of meaningless bombast, melancholic atmospheres, or dense world-building. And while I certainly don’t want the likes of The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises to go away, I am ecstatic that a group of artists got together in 2010 to make a comic book action movie as lean, nasty, violent, and humble as Dredd. Because those qualities are what make it one of the best action films of the century.

Karl Urban plays the titular Dredd, a “Judge” who patrols the post-apocalyptic slum that covers the area from Boston to Florida called Megacity One. He is an on-field judge, jury, and executioner and he is incredibly adept at his job. He effortlessly recites his “judgments” to criminals, be they murderers, junkies, or vagrants. Urban never takes off the mask as Dredd, an admirable trait considering most action heroes want to show the world their pretty mugs. But Urban, like the film itself, is humble, and stays in spirit of the character and comics it’s based on. Relying on his gruff tone and chin, Urban still gives a fantastically cheeky, deadpan performance.

Olivia Thrilby plays Anderson, the new Judge and arguably the main character of the film. Her psychic abilities override her inexperience and Dredd is forced to take her under his wing. Their mission is take down Ma-Ma, played by a gloriously-evil Lena Headey. Ma-Ma took over the giant “megablock” (this movie fucking rules) and runs all the crime and drug-dealing within. Dredd and Anderson one of her lieutenants, a dealer of “slo-mo,” the drug that has taken over much of the Megacity and tricks the user into thinking time has slowed to one per cent of its speed.  Ma-Ma locks the block down and orders her cronies to have them killed. Fans of The Raid: Redemption will undoubtedly notice the similarities in this set-up, but Dredd differentiates itself with its execution. This film is definitely lighter in tone than The Raid centers its action around gunfights instead of elaborately-choreographed punches and kicks.

Thirlby gets to play more of a human being. Anderson, unlike Dredd, experiences guilt and uncertainty with doling out judgments so readily. This conflict manifests subtly that one view might not convey the depth that this ostensibly-stupid movie has. This surprising character dynamic reveals a film that doesn’t condone the gung-ho approach of the judges as one would think. With Anderson, the film creates a dynamic between callous cynicism and narrow-minded ideas of “order” and more nuanced ideas of morality and humanity. To see which idea wins out at the end is just as satisfying as the seeing the gunfights.

And those gunfights are fucking rad. The concept of slo-mo allows the filmmakers a narrative excuse to showcase a tired gimmick with the film’s brilliantly realized aesthetic. Gratuitous blood sprays and tightly framed head shots presented in highly-detailed slow motion are peppered throughout the first half of the film. Just as the slo-mo gimmick seems to be getting overused, the filmmakers set it on the backburner until the climax, where it comes back into the fray in clever, ironic fashion. Filmed on a small (for Hollywood sci-fi) budget, Ddd contains griminess that most films either lack or don’t know what to do with.  The production design conveys the humble, retro ambitions of the filmmakers. The film wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of action movies from the 1980s.

If you allow Dredd to envelop you, you will have fun. In my estimates, a film simply has to meet its own goal. Dredd wanted to be a fun action film and it succeeded. It’s a beautifully cohesive movie. The set design, the score, the characterizations, the editing, the badass monologues, the gory action, and the story all work in sync together. The result is a film that completely understands itself and what it wants to be.

You could level certain criticisms against: it doesn’t sufficiently flesh out its world and the main character isn’t really the subject of the story, but those complaints pale in comparison to the fun I had on both viewings and to the depth I probe on second viewing. Dredd and Anderson do not fall into the pitfalls of many buddy-cop characters; their relationship reveals a more nuanced portrayal of Judge’s system, and eventually reveals how breaking their rigid rules might be more beneficial. It’s also a great example of how to make an action film that doesn’t alienate the female audience. It places a man and two woman as the primary characters; Dredd, Anderson, and Ma-Ma. As her name suggests, Headey’s character represents a kind of deranged maternal figure, encapsulating malicious authority. On the flip-side is Dredd, whose brutal authority exists in the name of good and places him at the business end of Ma-Ma’s machine guns. Between them is Anderson, the young doe learning her way in the world trying to make a dent in the criminal network. She emerges as the soul of the movie while her surrogate parents fight to the death.

Watch it by yourself, watch it with friends, or watch it with booze (though you might find yourself wanting to flip over a truck afterward). All are great options. Any situation will allow you to enjoy Dredd. It s an unabashed and unpretentious movie that simply wants you to have fun. Ironically enough, it stands for even more than that, symbolizing a kind of lovingly-made cinema-for-cinema’s sake that doesn’t get enough attention or respect.