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Snowpiercer (2014)

snowpiercer-posterI 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.

snowpiercer-main-review-e1375509690609Short 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.

snowpiercer-tilda-swinton1Its 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

Paradise (2013)

105966_galYou’re courting irony when you name your movie Paradise, as well as pained movie critic puns, but I had faith that Diablo Cody, stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, would entertain, especially after her best screenplay yet, 2011’s Young Adult. The problem with Paradise is that it goes just about nowhere and it’s shockingly bland, a criticism I never thought I’d have for a Cody-penned work. The premise starts off strong, with Lamb (Julianne Hough) as a devout Christian living a sheltered existence until the day she becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash. Her body covered in burns, her faith shaken to its core, she embarks on journey to Las Vegas to sin it up big time. It’s snarky and satirical, and then she gets to Vegas, she meets some nice new pals (Russel Brand, Octavia Spencer), and they hang out and… that’s about it. The Lamb character is meant to be a naïve but ultimately nice person, but she’s portrayed as vaguely racist thanks to Cody’s simple skewering of fundamentalism. Where are the sharp characters and incisive wit of Cody’s past efforts? The comedy almost dissolves as it goes and you realize that intriguing premise is never going to be realized. And then the third act happens and it feels like the film just gives up, unearned sentimentality takes control, and the characters all find unsatisfying conclusions. The characters aren’t given enough material, often left adrift in a plot-free environment of self-discovery. A misguided scene where Lamb pours her heart out to a former prostitute could work as a summary of what tonally doesn’t work with this movie. There are some funny moments, even some affecting ones, but Paradise doesn’t feel like it has a sophisticated voice and clear direction. Coming from Cody, I wouldn’t have expected those two chief complaints.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fruitvale Station (2013)

fruitvale_station_ver2_xlgIn the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was forcefully escorted off the Oakland transit system by armed officers. He was believed to be involved in some sort of gang-related scuffle on the train. Over the din of confusion, shouting, and anger, Oscar was shot and killed by a transit cop. His death sparked waves of outrage in his hometown and grabbed national headlines. Ryan Coogler was so passionate about Oscar’s death that he decided to write and direct a movie detailing the last hours of Grant’s life. He snagged Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer (The Help) to star, attached Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as a producer, and the ensuing film, Fruitvale Station, debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the top honors. Thanks to Coogler, many more people will have a chance to get to know Oscar Grant as a person rather than an unfortunate statistic.

Coogler creates a remarkable debut film for himself, one where the details of life feel richly realized and observed. Sure there are obvious symbolic metaphors introduced like boiling lobsters and a lost dog that dies in Oscar’s arms (yes, foreshadowing), but as a whole Fruitvale Station feels like real life transposed onto celluloid. Coogler also works hard to humanize all the participants in his film, save for the transit cops at the end. There is a refreshing lack of judgment throughout the film as people are allowed to be the ambiguous creatures we are. No more so than Oscar. He has moments that make you wince, but mostly we watch a man struggling to get his life in order. He’s terrific with his daughter, loving and naturally attentive; he puts his family’s needs ahead of his own when it comes to money; he even helps a stranger learn how flash fry a fish, though there’s a hint of flirtation guiding his actions. But he also can’t hold onto a job, has trouble being more actionable in his life’s decisions, and temptation is always banging on his door to lead him back to prison. He’s a complicated man and Jordan (Chronicle) masterfully brings the man and his complexities to life. This is a star-making performance by Jordan (as was his turn on The Wire) and I was stunned at how easily Jordan dissolves completely into his role. There isn’t a physical nuance or line delivery that feels false. It’s a sympathetic humanization and Jordan’s performance is a gift. Combined with Coogler’s deft handling, Fruitvale Station is engrossing.

fruitvale-station-traile%20660For much of the film I felt like I was attending a funeral. It’s hard to watch at times, especially watching Oscar’s family wait at the hospital for the news we already know is coming. It reminded me of 2006’s United 93, where the overwhelming sense of dread held over every scene, every innocuous moment held the extra weight that it would be the last time this person was doing this or talking to this person; the dread of waiting for the end we all know is coming. Coogler opens his film with real phone video recordings of the death of Oscar Grant, so from the first moment on we’re awaiting the horrible inevitability. I suppose it gives every moment an extra dimension of pathos, and to some this may be cheap and easy, but it all comes down to perspective. Surely if you knew the final day of your life, you’d likely find extra meaning in the simplest things, bidding goodbye in a thousand different subtle ways. This message isn’t exactly new; it was already old when Thornton Wilder hammered it home in his 1937 play Our Town. Carpe Diem, seize the day, live every moment like it’s your last, stop and smell the roses; you get the idea. And so, the entire running time of Fruitvale Station is a mournful examination on the contradictions, complexities, and connections of a single human life.

Oscar Grant is not lionized as a saint nor is he vilified as some mindless thug without redemption. Carefully, Coogler constructs a complicated man struggling to right his life. Through flashbacks we see he’s spent time in prison, and he’s got a quick flash of a temper that can lead him into impulsive and violent confrontations. It’s significant that we see this prison flashback to summarize completely the life Oscar is trying not to return to. The temptation is always present to fall back on old patterns of comfort, namely cheating on his girlfriend (he has a lot of girls’ numbers in his phone) and going back to selling drugs to make ends meet. Oscar’s ongoing struggle with personal responsibility has cost him his supermarket job (he was late far too often), and he’s kept this news to himself, choosing not to worry those close to him. But his options are limited as an ex-con, let alone a guy fighting his own demons, but he keeps fighting because the Oscar we see, the glimpses of what he could become, are one who wants to be better. He dumps his supply of drugs rather than go through with a sale. The gesture is noble but also partially self-destructive from a pragmatically financial way of thinking. He’s in a deeper hole, money-wise, but he seems committed to making the change. A late encounter with a kind stranger also provides the possibility of a new job, a new chance, one that seems all the more tragic because we know it is a promise that will never be captured. Oscar Grant was likely never going to be a man who changed the world. He was an ordinary man. But we still mourn the death of ordinary men, even those who have made mistakes and are fallible.

fruitvale-station-mainIt’s impossible to view Fruitvale Station without its relevant connections to the Trayvon Martin case of 2012. Both of these men were black youths deemed to be “up to no good” with quick judgment skewed by prevailing racial bias. Both men were killed for being viewed as threats due to their race and gender. However, unlike Trayvon, we have a litany of witnesses and video evidence documenting the senseless execution of Oscar Grant. That transit officer argued he mistook his tazer for his gun because, surely, a suspect who is already handcuffed, face down on the ground, and having his head pressed down with the boot of an officer, surely that man needs to be tazed just for good measure. That officer, by the way, served 11 months of a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter (justice served?). It’s senseless tragedy built upon miscalculated racial alarm, and the reason we have a movie, the reason there were riots in Oakland, is because this specific case had witnesses. How many other innocent young men die every year because someone wrongly and hastily deemed them to be “up to no good”?

Coogler isn’t trying to stir the pot of racial animus or deify Oscar Grant into some martyr for the cause. Fruitvale Station only follows the last day of Oscar Grant’s life but in doing so it becomes an illumination of a human life. Oscar was an ordinary man before he met so unfortunate an end, but Coogler wants us to remember him not simply as a newspaper headline, but as a person. It’s a worthy endeavor that succeeds heartily but may prove to be dull to many, including several of my own friends and critical colleagues. I can’t argue that the life of Oscar Grant is notable to follow beyond the sad final twenty minutes. But that doesn’t bother me, because with the talents of Coogler and Jordan and their indomitable sense of purpose, the film becomes a fitting portrait of Oscar Grant as a human being and a life lived, not just a life prematurely extinguished. It’s powerful, upsetting, brimming with emotion and fury, and it’s also eerily relevant to today and will, I fear, only continue to be more relevant as the next Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin captures the national spotlight. Coogler’s excellently realized film is a eulogy to an ordinary man, flaws and all, but also a call to do better.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Help (2011)

Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling publishing phenomenon has now become a box-office smash. In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is coming home after graduating from college. Her ailing mother (Allison Janney) is convinced that she will die without any grandchildren and pressures Skeeter to find herself a man. Instead, she finds herself a job writing for the city newspaper. She answers reader household and cleaning questions as “Miss Mryna.” She seeks help from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged woman who’s worked as a maid to rich white people her whole life. Skeeter soon changes her focus and wants to interview other maids about the indignities they experience. She wants to get their story out there. This is a time where it was actual Mississippi law that anyone working against segregation could be imprisoned. They try reaching out to Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a maid recently fired from the services of Mrs. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of the Southern belles. Minnie is much more outspoken and her mouth causes her to get into trouble. The only job she can find is in the household of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), a woman ostracized by Hilly’s forces. Skeeter transcribes the life stories of a dozen maids and the results become an anonymous bestseller that sets Jackson tongues a waggin’.

The Help enlists a colorful cast of characters (no pun intended) and tells a familiar story about people taking a stand during a tumultuous time in history. This is traditional classic Hollywood storytelling with the respective characters banding together, leaning upon one another, building camaraderie and victory, and then finally able to stand up to their antagonists, which in this case is really just Howard’s snooty racist character. It’s well told, well directed (both credits to Terry Tate, childhood friend of the author), very well acted by every member of the cast, and watching all 145 minutes is like being fed a heaping helping of home cooking. You leave feeling full and sated, and some may even feel nourished. You feel good about yourself. I tried to resist but resistance was futile. I can’t help but enjoy The Help. And even though I walked away liking the film, something stuck in my craw. It felt a little too prefabricated, too eager to be liked, to go down easy, gentle, a sweet Southern story about women taking a moral stand and finding their voices. But what is the film’s real focus when it comes to race relations?

Naturally nobody is going to look as The Help as an exhaustive document of the Civil Rights era, but the movie seems to seriously downplay the intensity of that struggle. Sure it pays lip service to Medgar Evans assassination but by this time there were riots, churches being bombed, children being killed, open collusion between law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, and the Freedom Riders were being met by violent mobs. There are a lot of bigger things going on than black maids sitting down for interviews with a college girl. Come on, this is Mississippi we’re talking about here, the home of racism. I understand that the Civil Rights movement had thousands of anonymous acts of courage and the actions of these (fictional) women should not be out rightly discounted. However, the parting message of the film seems to be not about the courage of the black maids but the tenacity of Skeeter, a middleclass white woman who herself grew up with “help.” The Help’s mixed message on race relations reminds me of a similar situation with 2009’s beloved The Blind Side. That movie wasn’t so much about the triumph of a black athlete so much as a glowing picture to how great rich white people can be. And Sandra Bullock got an Oscar for it; that’s how great a white lady she was. The Help is another example of Hollywood taking a story primarily about minorities and having white people necessary to tell that story. Why are white people always necessary to tell some other race’s stories? Skeeter is an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South. That’s how she starts. By the film’s end, she’s now… an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South and now she has a publishing career. Good for her! Good for heroic white people! They had so much to lose back then.

I guess my main fault is that this is not Skeeter’s movie. I don’t even think she’s needed. Yes she provides the outlet for the stories and secrets of an undervalued class of people. But did she need to be the co-lead? Does she need her own storyline where she stands up to her mother cowing to racist social norms? She had her own maid (Cicely Tyson) unceremoniously dumped while she was at school. Surprisingly this does not give too many insights to Skeeter’s character. Do we need any scenes of her going out on dates so that we can forever be reminded how ahead of her time she was, how liberal and progressive she was and destined to be unappreciated by a pool of men who were looking for only pretty housewives? As my friend China Gentry said, we’d all like to think we’d be the forward-thinking progressive voice of change in these historical dramas, to make ourselves feel better, but we’d most likely just be another silent face in the background. The boyfriend storyline is a complete waste of time. Skeeter goes out with a drunk jerk, he comes back and apologizes, they go out again, then after she gets published he freaks out and storms out. And that is the last we see of this guy. That’s the end of his story. He apparently puts his foot down when it comes to dating a female author. This storyline adds nothing to the overall narrative or to the character of Skeeter. There’s entirely too much Skeeter in the movie, and I say this as a gigantic fan of Emma Stone (Easy A). It’s not the actress’ fault either because she performs well in her first dramatic film role. This is just not her movie. This is not a movie about heroic white people; at least it shouldn’t be. This is a movie about the help, so let’s devote more time to them, notably Minnie and Aibileen. The movie opens and closes with Aibileen’s voice over. She is the star of this story. Why do I need another character just to coax out her story? Yes, I understand the limitations to a woman in Aibileen’s position in those days, but that’s no excuse. She deserves to be the focus.

Davis crushes in this movie. She is a one-woman force of devastation. You can just see the wear on her face, the tremor in her eyes, the sadness etched into her face. This is a woman beaten down by her position, and Davis is excellent. How good is this woman? She’s so good she got nominated for an Oscar for a single eight-minute scene in 2008’s Doubt. That’s Judi Dench territory right there (Dench famously won a Best Supporting Actress trophy despite only appearing onscreen for about nine minutes in Shakespeare in Love). She has a few big acting moments but mostly she’s not an outspoken woman. She’s more a downtrodden woman used to the many disappointments of her lot in life. She raises other people’s children while seeing very little of her own son. She develops close relationships with those kids, and the kids feel more attached to their maids than their mommies. And there’s the shattering disillusionment that these children, who once loved their maids, will transform into spitting images of their parents. The help gets treated less like family and more like a disposable, impersonal employee. The ease of severing ties can be heartbreaking. And Davis lets you feel all that without even having to speak. Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks), in easily her biggest role of her career, is enjoyable with the more outspoken role. She’s more the mouthpiece for the audience.

As I admitted in my review of 50/50, I don’t think there’s any role that Howard (fun fact: both Howard and Stone will play film versions of Gwen Stacy) can play where I won’t fall in love with her somewhat. This is more a hypothesis than a theory at this point. Hilly is a social queen, the Southern belle who likes things just the way they are. She has influence over the other middleclass wives in Jackson, but she does make for a pretty marginal main antagonist given the time period. She can threaten the livelihoods of the maids, so she is a threat, and her worldview is decidedly racist (she thinks using the same toilets will spread “black diseases”). She’s built up enough to be a threat but not enough to be unstoppable. She’s defeatable, unlike the intolerant ideology so prevalent in the South. We can’t defeat racism but we can topple one racist white lady. Well, we can laugh at her and bring up the fact that she ate something very gross once. I won’t go into spoilers, but this plot point where Minnie gets wreaks personal vengeance on Hilly via baked goods feels out of place for the tone of the film. It doesn’t fit.

I resisted seeing The Help for so long, believing it would be a painful experience with mushy emotions and many life lessons served up on an easy platter. And to some degree, the movie is exactly that. But it’s also hard to dislike the sweep of the old fashioned storytelling. The Help is a nice movie, extremely well acted, and filled with period details that will make the audience sense its authenticity. It’s easy to get caught up in the writing and the acting, so it’s easy to ignore the otherwise somewhat questionable examination on race relations. I don’t know why we still need white people to tell “their story.” The Help is a well-crafted movie but it fails to move the conversation forward. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation. Not every Civil Rights era story is required to properly educate the public, let alone a work of historical fiction. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the story like so many million readers have. But the power of Davis’ performance claws at my memory, telling me she deserves a better movie focused on her character. For once, I’d like to see a Hollywood movie about race relations that doesn’t require white people as a framing device. Let’s let the right people tell “their story” for once.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dinner with Schmucks (2010)

Oh man was this thing just painfully unfunny on all levels. It’s an American remake of a fairly funny French film and it stars Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd, two actors that have to work really hard not to be funny. Well they found a way. Talk about a bunch of schmucks. Every single character is a world-class idiot that behaves in a manner that 1) isn’t remotely relatable and 2) isn’t funny. It’s all yelling and raised eyebrows and exclamation points in place of setups and payoffs. Even worse, it tries to force a horrendously false saccharine feel-good message, a comedic “believe in yourself” sort of moralizing that says, “They aren’t the freaks, we are.” No, you all are freaks. The film confuses situations that are weird, uncomfortable, and just plain unlikely with comedy, which doesn’t work without some careful context and setup. Watching this nonstop leaden buffoonery makes you hang your head and sigh. This makes Three’s Company look like enlightened comedy. The movie also features Jeff Dunham doing his wacky puppets. This cinematic stick in the eye comes across as an obnoxiously unyielding comedy that doesn’t know when to stop, how to start, or what to do in between.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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