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Are blockbusters really becoming too intellectualized?

Are blockbusters really becoming too intellectualized? (photo)

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Slate sometimes prides itself for contrarianism, but if there’s a point to Tom Shone’s claim that “Blockbusters have become way too intellectual,” I’m not sure what it is. I’ve read it three times and it becomes more baffling every time, because Shone thinks the main problem with “Up In The Air” is that it wasn’t emotional enough, because he’s really looking forward to “Love and Other Drugs,” in which Pfizer salesman Jake Gyllenhaal falls for Parkinson’s victim Anne Hathaway, and because, well, he believes Hollywood movies are too intellectual and not emotional enough.

It should be noted that Shone himself doesn’t use the word “blockbuster” once — the label is only present in the presumably editor-provided subhead. To co-opt the term anyway, it is halfway true that the modern blockbuster is more overtly “intellectualized” than its predecessors. “Star Wars” is about movie love and good vs. evil, while “The Dark Knight” is openly about the ethics of the surveillance state, entropy and the prisoner’s dilemma. “Superman” is about a dude who can spin the world backwards on its axis and reverse time, while “X-Men” is an allegory for homophobia and tolerance.

One thing most blockbusters do have in common is that they tend to be much more fun to pick apart subtextually than smaller-budget movies, which have to focus and achieve their goals with precision — there’s not much room for error or weird outside influences to sneak in.

04022010_x2.jpgBlockbusters, though, have cash and resources to spare. They also often have scripts that are easily distracted or lavishly incoherent. While that may not make for flawless viewing, it does make things interesting in other ways. Blockbuster casts are frequently stacked with actors possessed of far more acting talent than they’re required to display (see John Malkovich’s upcoming turn in “Transformers 3,” or Ian Holm slumming in “The Day After Tomorrow”), which lends to all kinds of odd connotative experiences, in the same way that it’s impossible to watch “Gandhi” without getting weirded out by Candice Bergen’s presence. Some actors take their images with them no matter where they go.

Of course, you can pick apart blockbusters for subtext all day long for academic ends — the “Alien” series has become a cornerstone of feminist studies. But they’re also unintentionally resonant, overlapping with actors that summon up all kinds of memories and themes they can’t process in ways that don’t require intellectual stretching to pick up on. The great independent films may be better at achieving their goals as intended, but it’s the blockbusters that can, unintentionally, pick up on things that will linger long after they’re meant to. Long after Malkovich’s sole feature directorial effort “The Dancer Upstairs” fades away, we’ll still parse him through these weird paycheck tangents.

[Photos: “Up In The Air,” Paramount, 2009; “X2,” 20th Century Fox, 2003.]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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