Showing posts with label space. Show all posts
Showing posts with label space. Show all posts

Sunday, December 16, 2012

ANATOMY OF A B MOVIE MASTERPIECE: SPACE JAIL

(source)

It's getting about time to wrap up the year in movies, but before we get to best-of lists and awards it's time to salute a movie that is not going to appear on any best-of lists (even my own) and which will only be winning awards at the 2nd annual Fucko Awards here on these hallowed pages, for the teeming dozens of you who still put up with the Tourette's-on-coke cursing, loopy structure, and pleonastically redundant syntax. That movie, ladies and gentlemen, is Space Jail.

“Space Jail” is the far more widely-used alternate title to the sci-fi action picture Lockout, produced by scenarist and co-writer Luc Besson's Europacorp, that bulwark against good taste, that hallowed house of B cinema, that kingmaker of such now-revered titans of ownage as Jason Statham and Liam Neeson (who, yes, was already Liam Neeson, but until the now legendary “particular set of skills” speech in Taken had not yet lay claim to this particular realm). The B movie, of which even the Europacorp cycle, glorious as they are, are pale shadows (and, to be brutally honest, if B movies still existed in their proper form, the Europacorp pictures would be less special), is an essential variety of cinema. Where the so-called “A” movie—ideally—caters to the intellect and—in a perfect world—has artistic aspirations, the B operates on the emotions, and visceral pleasures. A's can be emotionally satisfying, and B's can be smart and have artistic merit, but there's nothing like a good, “dumb” B. Lockout is a proud example thereof, and as such it has a very simple premise: the hero needs to rescue the princess, defeat the monsters who have her, and escape. That premise is thousands of years old. But the mark of a successful B movie (or the equivalent in other art forms) is the balance it strikes between the familiar and the novel. Which is why Lockout is a notable success: the “hero” is a chainsmoking, wisecracking government agent, tasked with rescuing the president's daughter from a maximum security facility, where she's being held by insane Scottish brothers and hundreds of other hardened convicts. Oh, yeah, and it's in fucking space. Hence, Space Jail.

I don't remember who the first other person I heard refer to Lockout as Space Jail was. The movie had already changed titles a couple times before I even read about it, and there were rumors the title was going to change again, so I started mentally referring to it as “that Guy Pearce space jail movie,” because as mnemonic placeholders go that's not bad, not to mention the notion of a movie where Guy Pearce went to fucking space to break into a space jail was awesome. I'm pretty sure I'd heard someone else call it that, because while waiting to get into the screening I tweeted, “Damn, everyone in New York is trying to get thrown in space jail. #SPACEJAIL” directly after which I heard someone behind me in line say, “Oh, no, I'm not here to see [whatever the other movie in the other screening room was], I'm here for Space Jail!” and that wasn't the first time. Anyway, that was early April. I think since then I've heard the movie called “Lockout” about three times, as opposed to too many joyous whoops of “Space Jail!” to possibly count.

Not being a solipsist, and not one to conflate my little Twitter critics/bloggers clique with the universe, I'm well aware that not everyone is as enamored of this picture as I. Admittedly, part of my ranting about it is that it's so much fun to say “Space Jail!” Another is, much like with oxygen deprivation, a few too many Golan-Globus/Cannon-less years fucked my brain up (I mean goddamn, the whole fucking 90s went by with no Cannon Films, and Europacorp didn't really hit its stride til the mid 00s; that's fifteen years wandering in the fucking desert looking for an oasis of new disreputable B movies). A lot of people I respect have said “I don't get it” with regards to the Space Jail cult, and a few (using “cult” as foreshadowing) have flat out said: “You people are crazy.” The case they make consists of the following, irrefutable, points:

1—The characters are, without exception, one-dimensional archetypes or cannon fodder
2—The plot is by-the-numbers B fare
3—The special effects really, really suck
4—The movie is utterly shameless about all of the above

The reason none of those points can be refuted is that they're exactly what make Space Jail so wonderful. It's even better on second viewing because, while the first time around you can be fairly certain Guy Pearce kills all the bad guys and somehow gets First Daughter Maggie Grace to fall for his rakish charms (Andreas at Pussy Goes Grr compared this bit of business to It Happened One Night, which is absolutely spot-on), the second time around you know he does. Knowing how it all shakes out also affords one the opportunity to marvel at the tightness of the story's construction and the blazing speed at which that story goes by. (And seriously, some of the flourishes—making the villains Scottish psychopaths, for one—seem like they were created while on speed.)

All perverse affinity for down-and-dirty genre fare aside, it takes truly inspired execution to keep material like this from, to borrow the last of Space Jail's multiple ticking clocks, falling out of orbit and crashing into the Eastern seaboard. The reason Space Jail actually works is because of Guy Pearce. His performance is a lead in a more practical way than simply being the guy in the most scenes with the most lines who kills the bad guy. Guy Pearce leads the audience through the story, acting as the lens through which we see the movie, even more than the direction or script.

The fact that Guy Pearce is in a movie like this raises questions on its own, as it does sort of feel like slumming for him. As it turns out, he totally is, but fabulously. His being a good enough actor to look at the script and go, “Ha! This shit is fucking silly....but hey, what's worth doing is worth doing right” leads him to engage fully with the silliness of the proceedings without ever acting like it's beneath him. When it's time to kick ass he kicks ass. When it's time to get serious, he gets serious. When it's time to stop acting like a 12-year-old to Maggie Grace, he stops. It's a performance perfectly calibrated with the movie's tone and perfectly serving the narrative. Just tip your cap to Guy Pearce in this.

A repeat viewing also yielded a very pleasant surprise: the first time around I'd been a little alarmed by the glassiness of Maggie Grace's eyes and walked away with the impression that she was high or something. You know what it was? Shitty lighting. Yeah, some grip was pointing a practical right at her contact lenses and it made her look smacked out on pills for the whole movie. Turns out she's actually great, lots of subtle emotional colors, and if it wasn't for that colossally fucking stupid Secret Service agent (an odd but fascinating recurrent bit of business; he needlessly endangers her in every single scene they share) she wouldn't even really have any hapless heroine business. Her smarts get Guy Pearce out of a number of tight spots, and in a pinch she even dispenses a bit of crisply executed ownage, machine-gunning a few baddies while Guy Pearce brute-forces a locked door (after she kills the guys, he's like “Jesus, I thought you were a Democrat,” which is really fucking funny).

With this positive energy at the top, we're afforded the pleasures of an extremely eccentric supporting cast. Although it would have been nice if they'd splurged and cast Željko Ivanek as the president (the poor man's Željko holds it down competently as the prez but Željko's Željko, feel me?) everybody else fucking rocks. Peter Stormare and Lennie James look like they're locked in heated battle to win a side bet about who can have the worse American accent (Lennie James manages to win because Stormare Costners up and doesn't even try, aside from a couple twangy vowels). And speaking of accents, how amazing is it that hundreds of dudes bust out of their cells and seize control of the prison, one grizzled fuck steps up and non-verbally says “Thur'll be nae fuckin anarchae shite, ken?” and everyone else goes, “Whoa shit he's Scottish, we better let him be in charge” without any kind of formal consensus and just zips behind him in total deference. His psycho younger brother with the mohawk is great too, and legitimately scary because he kills people even when it doesn't make sense to.

But the real kicker, another thing that didn't really register until the second time around, is that one of the biggest complaints everyone had about Space Jail actually can be rebutted, and completely. To wit: why the fuck did they put the jail in space, anyway, and don't say “because it's awesome” because that's not a real answer, so what the fuck, guy? The answer is given very quickly and not dwelt upon at all: a sinister corporation bankrolled the space jail to study the physiological effects of being in suspended animation in space for long periods of time as an R&D project with an eye toward deep space exploration. Yes, that's right. Space jail is in space because of Evil White Guys In Suits. Therein lies the grace note in this B movie symphony.

Ah, man, I fucking love Space Jail.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"WHO'S THE BEST PILOT I EVER SAW? WELL, YOU'RE LOOKIN AT 'IM": YURI GAGARIN AND THE RIGHT STUFF




“It's Gagarin!”
“We know. Sit down.”

The Right Stuff



50 years ago today, one of the greatest feats in the history of balls was achieved by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Even if one discounts this entire Cracked article (which is unwise), which speculates that the Soviets fired a number of unlucky and soon extremely dead people into space and only publicized Gagarin's voyage because he actually survived, you're left with this scenario: a guy sitting on top of a fucking rocket about to be shot into fucking space, which no one's ever done before. That, my friends, takes yarbles. Enormous ones.

Due to the stupid Cold War, you got called a Commie if you properly appreciated how fuckin duro Yuri Gagarin was. This, of course, is unfair. It'd be nice if there was a well-written Yuri Gagarin biopic by a real director and a good actor playing Yuri here in Western media, but there isn't. The movies we made about astronauts were all about our own dudes, and while it's perfectly reasonable to roll your eyes and go “fucking Americans” (if you're not American) or “yeah man that's totally fuckin typical of mass media man trying to control the fuckin narrative and hide us from the fuckin truth man” (if you're American and smoke weed), why shouldn't we make movies about our own dudes? While it's certainly true that Yuri Gagarin made it up there first, the Americans who followed shortly thereafter only faced a marginally safer trip, and should be recognized for their membership in the same testicular weight class.



Now, lest you think that I'm only using Yuri Gagarin as an excuse to go rhapsodize about The Right Stuff for a few thousand words, there is a connection. Gagarin and the Soviet space program, while only referred to on a handful of occasions in the movie, nonetheless provide the impetus for the movie's story. Also, the fact that the protagonists in The Right Stuff aren't ever going to get there first humanizes them in a way. The rest of the movie goes to great lengths—and I do mean great lengths, it's over three hours long—to continue humanizing the astronauts, who in the popular media of their era were made out to be heroes.. And here's my Gagarin link: he is the movie's mythic hero.

The Right Stuff is not overly concerned with historical accuracy. It's a bit notorious for this, actually; even Tom Wolfe, from whose book the movie was adapted, who favored literary technique over straight reportage in his journalistic work, looked at the movie and went “Holy fuck, dude, this shit is made up.” (Ed. Note: paraphrase) Some of the factual changes in the movie did some historical figures a disservice: the scientists who built the shit that put the astronauts in space and got 'em back deserved a little better than to be portrayed as bumbling cartoon characters who needed design tips from the astronauts to even make the fuckin spaceships. Yeah, a lot of those guys who built the rockets worked for Germany in World War II and were only able to duck war crimes indictments because we needed them to compete with the Commies (who pulled the same thing so they could compete with us). They maybe weren't necessarily the best guys in the world, and a few of them probably had a bit of blood on their hands (or white lab coats), but good guy or no good guy: launching people into space and having them come back alive without tentacles is fucking impressive.

There are a ton of other things in The Right Stuff that are total horseshit, played for laughs, or heightened for the sake of drama. It would be one thing if it was purporting to be a just-the-facts-ma'am account of the space race, but that's not what this movie is about. Check the title, this movie is about The Right Stuff. The reason why it's called The Right Stuff is because societal mores wouldn't let it be called Men With Gigantic Testicles or Balls That Clank: The Story of How Seven Dudes With Dorky Haircuts Got Shot Into Fucking Space. The latter, anyway, is too long; you need to keep that shit snappy, especially back then when the paperback editions were so tiny. But the point is, that's what this movie is about: a bunch of guys who had unfathomably massive balls.

The alpha of the bunch, one of the coolest motherfuckers ever captured on celluloid, was one Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager, portrayed in the movie by Sam Fucking Shepard. Chuck Yeager is a very important figure in the history of masculinity, because he got into airplanes and flew those sons of bitches so goddamn fast even the sound of how awesome he was couldn't keep up. Since none of these goddamn kids these days has any sense of history, let me remind you little fuckers: breaking the sound barrier—long enough ago that Babe Ruth was alive, no less—is automatic win in any “can you top this” testosterone competition, unless somebody who can wrestle alligators with his dick without spilling his drink shows up.

Now, the real-life Chuck Yeager, on the merits of his accomplishments, may be more awesome than just about any other guy who ever lived, but he was this nice, humble guy who wasn't self-aggrandizing or anything, he just liked to go up in airplanes and fucking warp space-time for fun. But, you know, for the movie, you need to make sure the awesomeness reads. So writer-director Philip Kaufman, being a very thoughtful man and skilled filmmaker, decided not to take any fucking chances and cast Sam Shepard. Sure, some of Sam Shepard's plays are pretentious horseshit, but holy fucking fuck that guy looks cool, and that Midwestern drawl on top of it . . . look, just get the motherfucker a horse, light him with a sunset, and point the fucking camera at him, okay? There's your movie, cut, printed, wrapped.

The movie starts with Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and the resultant increased interest in test pilots, which brings most of the rest of our protagonists to the Air Force base that basically belonged to Yeager. The inner circle at the bar is Yeager and his wife, and a bunch of guys who do their best to play it cool but secretly are all like “Dude I get to fucking drink with Chuck fucking Yeager,” among whom is narrator Levon Helm (drummer/vocalist of The Band), a man whose voice basically is America. The new guys settle in awkwardly, with charmer Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) having a particularly rough time of it with his wife, and Gordo's awkward, shy BFF Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) having no easier time of it.

And then there was Sputnik. The scope broadens as America launches the space program, and a number of test pilots volunteer, including Gordo and Gus, but Yeager is like, “They're just shootin the sumbitches up in the air and having them fall back down; the danger is disproportionate to the level of control the pilot can exert, so fuck that shit sideways, I'm staying right here flying planes, riding horses, and nailing Barbra Hershey.” Being enough of a mensch to willingly sacrifice fame and fortune because to do so would compromise one's own principles, well, that's the province of the truly exalted. I cannot say this enough: all fucking praise is due to Chuck fucking Yeager.

Gordo, Gus, and their little buddy Deke all get into astronaut training with goofball wildman Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Clean The Marine, John Glenn (Ed Harris), who's just a little too goody-good to be true, at least according to horndog Gordo, gruff hard-drinking Gus, and Martian immigrant Shepard, and they think he thinks he's better than them, when really, he's just a really wholesome dude who loves the crap out of his wife, who only gives off an aloof air because she stutters really badly and is too shy to talk most times.

Once everyone gets to know everyone else, and some highly entertaining hijinks take place in training, the astronauts all get to the point where they absolutely, unequivocally have each other's backs. And this is the point where they all start getting shot up into fucking space, without even the glory of being first, because Yuri Gagarin got there first. They never speak Gagarin's name, but without the pioneer thing of planting their flag in space, they're a little deflated, and it's only their camaraderie and own mindbogglingly enormous balls that get them through the ensuing travails.

There's no small amount of disdain for the astronauts back on the ground. At the Air Force base bar, the grumpy (and now older) dudes sitting around the bar are all like, “fuck it, a chimp could do this shit, fuck an astronaut” before Yeager—who, if we need a reminder from a couple paragraphs ago, is an authority on balls—quietly kicks some fucking knowledge: “It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it's on national TV.” And because he's both Chuck Yeager and absolutely right, everybody shuts the fuck up and starts throwing some love behind the astronauts.

The recreations of the space flights are all meticulously done and as thrilling as just about anything ever put on a movie screen. You've got Alan Shepard going up, practically sleeping through it, and then pissing in his space suit because he forgot to before getting strapped in (and oh yeah, even though The Right Stuff cuts off before this, it bears mentioning, this is the fucking guy who brought his golf clubs to the Moon with him in the early 70s, which is so staggeringly badass it remains so even though golf sucks). You've got Gus Grissom having a technical malfunction and not getting to get any of the glory because NASA doesn't want to publicize a fuckup (and then the poor guy fucking died when his spaceship blew up on the launching pad a couple years later). And then there's the long, lyrical, magic journey of John Glenn (symbolically, he later spent a quarter century in the US Senate as one of those rock-solid “one of the good guys” politicians that seemed to good to be true but actually was one of the good guys; he didn't think it would be right to capitalize on the publicity he got from being portrayed as a really good guy by Ed Harris in The Right Stuff, thus lending greater weight to said characterization, and subsequently lost the '84 Democratic presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, who as we all know got skullfucked by Reagan).

All the while, cool as Chuck Yeager is, and as willingly as he foreswore the glory of participating in the space program, part of him (and almost certainly a part in the ball region) is going, “It'd be really cool to go to space.” A really bitchin' new plane gets dropped off at the base, that's so cool it looks like the MiG Clint steals in Firefox (the high water mark, at that point, of cool planes in cinema), and because he's Chuck fucking Yeager, he swaggers on up and takes 'er for a spin and nobody says shit (“Flight plan? He's Chuck fucking Yeager, it should be around here somewhere . . . wait, shit . . . uh oh . . .”)

And so, Chuck Yeager flies an airplane right up to the point where he's basically in space. He has just long enough to go “Holy shit, this is awesome” before the canopy starts to crack and the whole shithouse goes up in flames. His plane freaks out way worse than Maverick and Goose's in Top Gun, and Yeager proves both that he's cooler than they are and that he's in a better movie than them by surviving the crash with nothing more than a couple black eyes from depressurization and some burns from when the fucking thing caught on fire. He fucking walks away from the crash.

For the denouement, Gordo Cooper, that loveable lug, gets to go to space, and as Levon Helm narrates: “[on] that glorious day in May 1963, Gordo Cooper went higher, farther, and faster than any other American - 22 complete orbits around the world; he was the last American ever to go into space alone. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.” And that, in a nutshell, is what this movie is about: getting excited about how fucking cool it is that these guys went to space.

The factual inaccuracies, like LBJ being Foghorn Leghorn and all that shit, and the fact that everyone's a cartoon character except Yeager and the astronauts (and all their wives), are all attributable to the fact that the movie is about how cool Yeager and the astronauts (and all their wives) are, and how anyone outside their orbit (Ed. Note: you're welcome) just isn't where it's at. What you might call a stylistic choice manifested through content.

You could, if you wanted to be a gigantic penisface, complain that Philip Kaufman's cavalier attitude toward the facts, glib tone, and priority toward making a movie that was cool rather than truthful make The Right Stuff somewhat less than a great movie. Maybe you have a point, but you also have cooties. The Right Stuff is such a fantastically entertaining movie—and, at three hours long, it never flags or is anything less than compelling—that it being great art or even factually accurate don't matter at all. One fact the movie does not get wrong is that these guys this movie is about did something normal people could not do. They swaggered forth with such boldness, such disregard for fear, such ability to deal with their genitals' gravitational fields, as to render all other facts essentially irrelevant.

It still takes a lot of fucking fortitude to go to space now, with modern technology and safe(r) rockets. But in the early 60s? Fucking forget about it. The protagonists of The Right Stuff, and their silent, massively awesome predecessor Yuri Gagarin, these were fucking men. In the very best sense of the term.