and I quote

november 2012

click for  permalink November 17, 2012

It was a rainy, cold and thoroughly November-y day in Vancouver, so I spent the whole thing in my bathrobe, firmly planted in front of two screens, alternately enjoying and critiquing a selection of questionable cinematic offerings on Netflix. The high point was rewatching a Vimeo series of brilliant video essays (ugh — sorry, I can't think what else to call them) by film critic Jim Emerson of the Press Play blog, the first of which is called The Dark Knight: Anatomy of a Flawed Action Scene.

Good film criticism is one of my favorite forms of nonfiction writing and Jim's is right up there with the greats of the genre. I feel like I learned something not just about film-making but about how the human mind constructs its own reality, just by watching a 20-minute video about a Batman movie (for that kind of ROI, you usually have to watch TED Talks). In Part two, he contrasts the scene above with a chase scene from the 2010 spy action film Salt, starring Angelina Jolie.

In the third and final installment, he analyzes clips from three action classics that really demonstrate how it's done — and yes, of course that scene from The French Connection is one of them.

So after a recommendation like that, I had to watch Salt. Admittedly, I still don't need much of an excuse to watch an Angelina Jolie movie. Hell, I even sort of liked Tomb Raider and Life or Something Like It, which are often cited by the haters as early indicators that her Oscar was misawarded. Over the years, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the only one I can remember that made me reconsider being such an easy mark in the "she had me at Gia" target market. All of which just goes to show you the insidious power of her charm over me, since a second glance at her IMDB filmography reminds me that she also appeared in such unspeakable pieces of shit as Alexander, Wanted and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the latter of which I've even railed against at great length in these very pages, but which I had completely forgotten her involvement in (more proof of her diabolical sorcery).

saltThe opening scene of Salt is blatantly ripped from the opening scene of another flawlessly conceived female spy action thriller, which also went horribly and inexcusably off the rails halfway through; JJ Abrams' Alias: a close up of Angelina, her beaten and bloodied face framed by blonde hair, in one in a series of the worst wigs since Cameron Diaz's faux Jewish 'fro in Being John Malkovich. The camera pans out to reveal that she is all but naked and in the process of being tortured by North Korean prison guards. Her blackened, puffy eyes and blood-caked hair make the point they were designed to: a fact that is still remarkably, if only temporarily, true: the woman is un-ulglifiable.

Salt also stars Liev Shrieber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who are such a joy to watch here, if only for their sheer commitment to the roles, despite the preposterousness of the spy-versus-spy plot. This movie is yet another example of America's current nostalgia for the Cold War, set in a weirdly anti-historical universe where various shadowy government agencies get to throw the full weight of their War on Terror-era budgets, and a complete lack of any moral compass, against a shadowy enemy with a similarly endless budget for pursuing intricately masterminded evil plots, an army of brainwashed sleeper-cell double agents and an endless supply of patience for plotting the USA's comeuppance.

But regardless of its failings (in particular its second half), Salt does one thing brilliantly and that is to cement Angelina's place on the still surprisingly short list of truly believable female action heroes. Who else, you may ask, do I consider worthy of this highly subjective yet meaningless honor? First, I want to be clear (btw, am I the only one who's found themselves parroting Obama's favorite catchphrase of late, despite making derisive noises every time I hear him do it? Anyway...), in determining the relative merits of action stars, one must consider their performances apart from the quality or content of the movies that made them.

Milla(Meet an Army of Milla.)

Whether or not you consider Resident Evil: Afterlife to be a film with any cinematic value beyond offering a few very enjoyable moments of CGI apocalo-pornography in the first 15 minutes before you turn it off in disgust, you must concede that Milla Jovavich is uniquely equipped for the peculiar niche she's carved out for herself, as the manic pixie psycho fembot of our post-human apocalyptic fantasies.

Contrast that with someone like Famke Janssen, whose breakout role as the sadistic, leather-clad villainess Xenia Onatopp provided the perfect foil for Pierce Brosnan in his first, long-awaited turn as James Bond. She went on to personify Jean Grey, arguably the most infamous member of The X-Men in more film adaptations than I can keep track of, deftly defying the traditional Bond Girl trajectory from object of lust and uneasy admiration to seller of questionable beauty products on late-night television. But despite her well-earned success and the fact that — unlike with, say, Halle Berry as Storm — you don't find yourself fantasizing about Angela Basset every minute she's onscreen, there is still something decidedly un-action hero-ish about Famke Janssen's performances. Not that there's anything wrong with her portrayal of my favorite Marvel mutant per se... There's nothing lacking or poorly executed, but she doesn't convince me. She just doesn't inhabit her superhumanity, if you know what I mean.

CarrieHere's a weird but apropos example. You remember when The Matrix first came out? No, no, no — stop it! I'm just talking about the first one here. Remember how awesome the trailer looked, how you thought what in thehow the hell did they..? Remember how you couldn't wait to see it, despite the nagging, not entirely invalid concern that it might be ruined by Keanu Reeves trying to act in it? Luckily, your fear was unfounded and, after thoroughly enjoying him in a role that was both suitably robotic and sublimely action-driven, you found yourself going back over his previous films with a new appreciation, observing that his most successful performances were also his most physical, as in Speed and Point Break, and perhaps you allowed your definition of good acting to expand just a tiny bit.

If our concept of intelligence can include not only the linguistic and the mathematical but also the spatial, musical and kinesthetic, then why not acting? After all, in the cinematic tradition of China there has long been a reverence for the purely physical performance, as in the martial arts classics of the 1970s which told complicated stories of honor, revenge, romance and spiritual enlightenment through impeccably choreographed fight scenes and almost always contained a strong element of fantasy, a combination that largely eluded Western audiences until the unprecedented success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

TuraMy point is this: there is a special category of acting that involves a different, although of course not unrelated, set of skills which enable the actor to inhabit and portray characters that are largely defined by their actions on the spatial and kinesthetic planes. This kind of physical virtuosity has less in common with traditional acting (your Meryl Streep/Philip Seymour Hoffman type performers) than with prima ballerinas or Olympic gymnasts — which is not to say the two categories are mutually exclusive, just different. Let's make it official with numbers...

My Top Ten Female Action Heroes:
10. Kate Beckinsale (Underworld)
9. Jennifer Garner(Alias and, although I didn't/won't see it, Electra)
8. Tura Satana (Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill)
7. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
6. Franka Potente (Run Lola Run)
5. Carrie Ann Moss (The Matrix)
4. Uma Thurman (Kill Bill)
3. Milla Jovavich (Resident Evil: Ad Nauseum, The Fifth Element)
2. Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Wanted, Salt)
1. Sigourney Weaver (because fembots may come and go, but Ellen Ripley is forever)

RipleyLike all lists, this one breaks down a bit in the middle so I've probably made a few errors in the ranking, but hopefully none of omission. I know what some of you are thinking... What about Megan Fox? Or Jessica Alba? Shame on you. See Halle Berry above.

To a few more of you who are thinking, What about Sarah Michelle Geller, who carried her show for several seasons whereas Jennifer Garner, blameless though she may be, only managed to get a good season and a half out of Alias. Well, somehow I missed the Buffy bandwagon the first time around but, now that I've seen what Joss Whedon is all about, I'm not so sure that was a bad thing. Through the marvel of Netflix, which of course I have to thank for Salt and the first 15 minutes of Resident Evil: Afterlife, Mr. Pink and I recently sat through the entire first episode of Firefly.

And as we watched with ever-deepening incredulity that this series had come highly recommended (and I mean Mad Men highly... Breaking Bad highly) by not one but a few friends (some of them even related to me), it dawned on me that Joss Whedon, in my highly subjective and meaningless opinion, is the Coconut Water — nay, the Farmville — of friend recommendations.

Bonus List:Two of the Best Pickup Lines in Two of My Favorite Movies (because, come on... can you think of ten?)

2. "I want you to hit me as hard as you can." Tyler Durden to — well — himself, in Fight Club (1999)
1. "Come with me if you want to live." — Kyle Reese to Sarah Connor, in The Terminator (1984)