I have seen Snowpiercer twice and it’s still a hard movie to describe. It’s the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Joon-hoo Bong, notable for The Host (the good one) and Mother. It’s based upon a French graphic novel only printed in France and South Korea. It’s an international production, filmed in the Czech Republic, and populated with recognizable actors like Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie that demands to be seen on the big screen when able.
To combat global warming, world leaders disperse a chemical to lower temperatures, and oh boy does it work, inadvertently causing a new Ice Age that kills almost all life on the planet. Almost, because a few hundred got aboard the train owned and operated by Wilford (Harris), a rich and secretive industrialist. He built a train that can circle the globe, running on a perpetual motion motor. The last of humanity is housed on Wilfrod’s train. After seventeen years aboard, the class system has become rather rigid. The important and wealthy are at the front of the train, and the poor are crammed in the back, given gelatinous protein blocks to eat, and kept in line by armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is plotting a revolt, biding his time, consulting with the wise Gilliam (Hurt), an aging leader missing several limbs. Together, they storm ahead, capturing effete Wilford spokesman Mason (Swinton) as a hostage, rescuing an engineer (Kang-ho Song) with a drug addiction who will help them open the train cars, fighting car by car to take control of the train. Naturally, those in power fight back in force to maintain the uneven status quo.
Short of the adrenaline-soaked Raid 2, there hasn’t been a better action movie this year than Snowpiercer. It starts slow, drawing the audience in, setting up its initial burst as a prison break of sorts where the tail section passengers have to figure out a way past the guards and several security doors open for only a few seconds. When the break does happen, in a clever fashion, you feel the full rush of the new opportunity thanks to the movie properly setting up the stakes and obstacles. Each new car presents a new world and a new obstacle. There’s one car where Curtis and his revolutionaries are met with fifty ski-mask wearing grunts with axes. This is the standout action sequence because of how it keeps changing. At first its brawn versus brawn, complete with swinging axes. Then the fighting stops briefly and all the grunts put on night vision goggles. The train enters a long tunnel, condemning Curtis and company to the dark. The grunts then go to town, spearing and slashing the hapless passengers blindly swinging in the dark. I won’t spoil the solution to this scenario but it too is properly set up and leads to some extremely satisfying action imagery, the kind of stuff that pops in a trailer. There’s an entirely different sequence later that also stands out. As the train goes into a long curve in the track, certain train cars are visible from others. Our chief heavy, listed as Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), sees Curtis in the car ahead and starts firing. Eventually Curtis and Franco blast small holes in the protective glass and wait, wait for their moment, for their shot. It’s a tense neo-Western standoff moment, and another delightful addition. The accumulative action has a surprising degree of variety and development.
Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Reportedly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the 126-minute film, but I’m puzzled as to where those edits would come. Every scene in this movie drives the film forward or imparts crucial pieces of information or metaphor that will play out later. Even something as comical as stopping for sushi in the aquarium car (balancing the ecosystem) has greater meaning and subtext when you look back at the film as a whole. Joon-hoo Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have given serious consideration to how this world operates and what life would be like when all of humanity is confined to one long train. The past is revealed incrementally, gingerly allowing the audience to become consumed with this odd dystopian landscape, our fascination brewing with each new puzzle piece being added. I was enthralled with the rich details, the cruel methods of keeping those in the tail section in line, the regular head counts, the protein block bars and what they truly are made of, the annual celebration of passing a certain bridge marking their own New Year, and especially the deification of Wilford. The characters worship the engine, and why not since it is the source of life for them, or as the chirpy schoolteacher (Alison Pill) sings: “What happens if the engine fails? We all freeze and die!” The later reveals are the best, giving full explanation why tail section children are important and, particularly, why Curtis is so ashamed at having two good arms. That monologue by Evans, looking back on the earliest and most cruelly chaotic days on the train, is a whopper. I truly hope that aspiring actors will use it during future auditions. It will make an impression.
Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. The political commentary isn’t exactly subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s exceedingly better executed and integrated into its plot than, say, last year’s Elysium. The class-consciousness provides a greater depth to the proceedings, providing a new spin on the have/have nots that’s just as relevant today. It’s not just tacked on, either. The political commentary is intertwined with the mechanics of the plot, as we’re witnessing class warfare against inequality, how barbarous acts can be co-opted for personal gain. When Curtis and his small company finally reach Wilford and the engine, it’s a moment akin to visiting the Wizard in Oz, the man behind the curtain they’ve heard so much about. There’s a great degree of incredulous humor from Wilford’s vaulted perspective, but the longer you listen, the more you start to follow his twisted logic and why exactly the status quo must be upheld despite the bloody consequences. Then there’s the macabre humor, which can be bracing at points, none more so than the school car sequence with Alison Pill (TV’s The Newsroom). Also doing plenty of comedic heavy lifting is Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, We Need to Talk About Kevin) with such an odd authority figure character. With a mouthful of fake teeth, some owlish glasses, and a peculiar speech pattern, it feels like she stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and we’re all the better for it. Often she’s the only source of humor in what is otherwise a dreary story about the strong preying upon the weak.
Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.
Nate’s Grade: A
Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.
Nate’s Grade: B+
What is it about advice columnists that make filmmakers want to turn their lives upside down? I suppose there’s some karmic twist seeing someone who instructs others fall on their face when it comes to living their own life. I can readily think of several movies, mostly in the romantic comedy and sentimental weepie genre, that all involve an advice columnist who has their life torn asunder by fate. I suppose the extra dose of irony seems less cruel when dished out to someone who, supposedly, has all the answers. Dan in Real Life is an observant and enjoyable movie that centers on the stumbles and joys of the life of cinema’s favorite whipping boy.
Dan (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist raising three daughters on his own. His wife died years ago from an undisclosed illness and ever since he has been trying his darndest to be the best, if not slightly overprotective, dad. His oldest (Alison Pill) is eager for the car keys, his middle daughter (Brittany Robertson) is defiantly insistent upon her undying love for a boy, and his youngest (Marlene Lawston) is the kind of tyke that provides sage wisdom in time of need, usually at the very end of the movie. The lot of them head out to the family home along the Rhode Island coast to spend the week with the extended brood. Dan sleeps in the laundry room, is hated by his spiteful daughters, and forced into a blind date thanks to his concerned parents (John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest).
While Dan is out trying to decompress he stumbled across Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore. They spend hours talking, well Dan does, and suddenly the rain cloud over his head seems destined to fade. He stammers to tell his family the good news when he discovers that his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), has brought his new girlfriend to meet the folks and it’s, surprise, Marie. Dan respects his brother and tries to control his feelings of desire but still cannot help but flirt and pine for Marie, who is all too aware of the under the radar advancements.
I’m actually somewhat amazed at how well Dan in Real Life plays out in real life. The idea of a big family get-together as a source of comedy has been done to death, and this clan exists in an exaggerated world popularized by movies where families have spirited games of charades, robust sing-a-longs, and then perform a talent show complete with decorative furnishing. The family’s emphasis on togetherness plays out in expected wacky scenarios that would be regularly seen on TV sitcoms, but it is refreshing that an entire film based around an annual family reunion instills no fraternal bickering or bitterness. That’s got to be something new, and again, potentially a pure product of the cinema. Dan in Real Life has familiar staples and walks some dangerously sappy territory but the film manages to surprise and amuse because it all comes back to being character-centered. There’s a great scene where Dan is hiding in a shower and Marie is forced, in order to maintain the rouse, to step naked into the shower with him. Dan is thrown into some contrived situations, like the shower scene, but it is his wounded, deferential sensibilities that save him and also save the film from movie-of-the-week trappings.
Director/co-writer Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) knows how much anguish Dan can suffer before pulling back, and it gets to a point where Dan starts to seem like a comic Job (that might be redundant). Of course, like most sitcoms, lessons will be learned and wisdom will be doled out thanks to full and honest communication, and Dan in Real Life is no different in that regard. There’s a level of believability to the film that helps ground it even during the familiar sitcom moments, like the late rush to testify one’s feelings of true love.
Carell isn’t a stranger to drama or comedy with some painful underpinnings to it, just look at his work in Little Miss Sunshine or the brilliant awkwardness of TV’s The Office. He’s very effective at communicating the exhausting exasperation of raising a trio of feisty females. There are some tender moments and Carell plays them well. He just has a physically natural look of sad befuddlement with his droopy yet piercing eyes and those bushy brows, so he knowingly underplays broad expressions and gestures and this works exceedingly well with the film’s un-sensational tone. When Dan does unleash the wilder, sillier side it’s usually a culmination of his pent up feelings; being denied happiness that appears within reach. He is a quietly becoming unwound as he tries to squash the feelings he doesn’t want to extinguish.
Binoche is a famous French actress who has an Oscar to boot, but she is simply radiant in this film and makes her character a prize worth perusing. She has an adorable sense of displacement and she and Carell exhibit a nice chemistry. Even in the tight timeframe, both the plot (3 days) and the film’s running length (93 minutes), Binoche manages to make us believe that someone could fall in love with her so easily.
Dan in Real Life is laid back, affable, and a sweet homespun comedy that escapes the sitcom trappings it very easily could have fallen prey to. What makes Dan so winning, ultimately, is how quietly and unassuming it goes about telling a familiar story of a sad man taking his first steps toward happiness. The movie has a gentle nature to it and succeeds thanks to an effective Carell performance and a really great turn by Binoche. Dan in Real Life is a feel-good drama that seems primarily aimed at adults, at least those with a working knowledge of the terrors of teenagers. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking but it is heartfelt, somewhat moving, and very easy to like. My advice: give this movie a chance and prepare to be surprised.
Nate’s Grade: B
There was a glut of teen-oriented princess fantasy films in 2004 but none seemed as artificial, as simplistic, as transparent, and as dull as Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Lindsey Lohan played Lola, a flamboyant new girl at school trying to fit in and find her way. This Disney confection aggressively spoon feeds its life lessons. You can successfully guess the entire plot of this trifle from the first second on. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen has a prolonged musical climax that’s a shameless ploy to set up Lohan as a pop singer and ensnare preteens into buying the soundtrack. When you get down to it and count the life lessons, simplicity, costume changes, and musical numbers, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen isn’t a movie, it’s an awards show patting itself on the back.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The set-up for Pieces of April, a low-budget film starring Katie Holmes, is a pastiche of familiar independent film elements so much so that it could across as parody. Holmes plays April Burns, a beleaguered teen living on her own in a grungy New York apartment. Today is Thanksgiving and her family will be stopping by for a grand Thanksgiving meal prepared by April. Her cantankerous mother (Patricia Clarkson) is ailing from breast cancer, and when she tries to think of one good memory shes had with April, she can only conjure memories belonging to younger daughter Beth (Alison Pill). She also will be introducing her family to her new boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher). April has 24 hours to cook a memorable meal for her family and it could be the last Thanksgiving they spend together.
In the world of independent film, it seems like theres a whole sub-genre of movies that revolve around chaotic Thanksgiving dinners and dysfunctional families. The holiday setting, her mothers cancer, April’s spirited attempts at autonomy in the big city, interracial dating and an apartment complex full of cute oddballs all seem like tried-and-true staples of indie film.
Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges, writer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and co-writer of About a Boy. His pedigree would certainly state that he knows something about family drama, and Pieces of April is a nice continuation of his observational humor. Hedges has a skilled confidence in his writing. The characters feel real and we gravitate to their vulnerability and hope. We see every sincere detail of Aprils plight to make her family proud. The choice to shoot Pieces of April on digital video adds an extra element of intimacy, like were trapped inside a home video.
Holmes gives her best performance to date. April, with patches of bright orange hair and arms enclosed with bracelets, is a sweetly vibrant character. When a neighbor asks about her relationship with her mother, April describes herself as the first pancake. She’s the one you’re supposed to throw out, another neighbor explains. Holmes’ performance is like a slow simmer of frustration, optimism and determination that wins your heart. Her more dramatic moments of helplessness and disappointment are quite affecting.
The supporting cast for Pieces of April is top-notch. Clarkson gets some weighty moments as the ailing mother, like when she runs out of the car in tears because she cant afford one more bad memory with April. She gets the showy part but enlivens every moment. Oliver Platt further feeds my theory of his quest to be in every movie ever. In Pieces of April he plays the put-upon father who frets his wife could pass any moment. Pill shines as the hyperactively cheerful and overachieving Beth. Her cherubic cheeks and glowing smile leave an indelible impression, and makes me question if her face ever got sore from excessive smiling.
Pieces of April is a pleasurable little comedy thats borderline touching. It’s not much more than a small slice of family drama, but with excellent writing and strong acting, Pieces of April distinguishes itself as more than a collection of familiar staples, and as a warm and quietly charming homespun comedy with an extra helping of heart.
Nate’s Grade: B+