Movies I watched: Snowpiercer, by Bong Joon-Ho

SnowpiercerStill-thumb-630xauto-36253Due to the failed environmental policies of this guy, and this guy, and this guy, the nations of earth decide to inject a chemical into the atmosphere in a desperate gamble to counter the effects of global warming. This fails, and most life on earth is wiped out.

The only people left alive, are the rich folks that managed to buy a ticket on the Snowpiercer, an awesome train that is planning on circling the globe for the rest of eternity, as well as the poor people who manage to sneak on at the last minute.

17 years later, the poor people aren’t happy, and they turn to Chris Evans to save them.

imagesThat’s the premise of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, an(mostly) English language film that has been a massive hit in Korea and other asian countries. It’s a premise full of promise & potential, and has been a bit of a cause celebre among film fans this year, as evil Harvey Weinstein had previously refused to release Joon-Ho’s cut of the film in North America. He has since acquiesced, but only in limited release.

I can see why.

Joon-Ho is so enthralled with his concept here, that he can’t seem to figure out what kind of movie to make around it. Should he make a balls-to-the-wall thriller? The bones for that are here, and one could see how Harvey Weinstein would have thought that’s what he was getting when he picked up the rights.

Or should he make a cerebral Brazil/12 Monkeys homage? Joon-Ho goes as far as to name one of his lead characters Gilliam, so his preference is fairly clear. But Snowpiercer is far too actiony, and it’s characters too one-dimensional, to fully take its place among such other dystopian classics like Blade Runner or Children of Men.

And it’s too preachy, and too sentimental, to be compared to other excellent modern thrillers like Looper & Source Code.

So what does Snowpiercer get right?

snowpiercer_tilda-swintonFirstly, it’s exciting. We know what the stakes are, and the desperation of Chris Evans’ crew is palpable. They are literally fighting for the future of the planet here. They’d rather die, than accept another day under the status quo.

Secondly, Tilda Swinton. Her role as the public face of the evil villain who is actually running the train, is absolutely inspired. Her character’s over-the-top fascism is probably the film’s strongest link to movies like A Clockwork Orange or 1984. The movie suffers every time she’s not on screen.

Thirdly, the concept of the piece. I’ve mentioned it before, but the concept is so strong, and so timely, that it really does make up for any other perceived shortfalls.

Quite frankly, this film is screaming for Showtime or AMC to turn it into a TV series. There is so much backstory left on the table here, and so many unanswered questions, that I found myself making up scenarios in my head to answer them.

There is plenty about this film that is entertaining and worth discussing, mostly having to do with the fact that we may only be decades away from a similar fate. However, all I could think about was how much the film left unsaid.

Rating: B-

 

 

Movies I’ve Watched: Captain America – The Winter Soldier by Joe Russo & Anthony Russo

Captain America: the Winter Soldier, is like the Raid: Berendal, in that it’s that rare sequel that overshadows the original, if not out right decimates it. This isn’t just the best Captain America movie ever made…it’s arguably best movie Marvel has produced thus far.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a WW2 super soldier who spent 70 years in a coma, and is now doing captain-america-chris-evans-avengers-600special ops for SHIELD, a super spy organization run by Nick Fury (played by Samuel Jackson, in easily his best work as the character to date). Evans thinks Jackson is a fascist thug, and Jackson thinks Evans is a naive dilettante. They’re friends, but they’re the kind of friends that send pretty women to move in across the hall from the other person just to spy on each other.
They’re joined by the Black Widow, a Russian superspy played by Scarlett Johansson, and the Falcon, a former U.S. paratrooper played by Anthony Mackie. They, and SHIELD, are fighting against Hydra, a WW2 era deep science Nazi organization, that seems to want to free the world, by killing a lot of people. They never really explain their plan very well.

black-widow-posterThis is being compared to 70’s thrillers like Day of the Jackal and the Parallax View, though I think this movie is far too action-oriented to really compare it apples-to-apples to those classics. But there’s a conspiracy, and race against the clock to uncover it, so now it’s a John Le Carre movie, apparently.

Although not technically a “thriller”, Winter Solider is absolutely thrilling. It puts its boots to your neck the minute you walk into the theatre, and it doesn’t let up. The action and fight choreography is several steps up from the already considerable standards set by the first film, and it appears that a real effort was made into adapting the acrobatics seen in the late 80’s Mark Gruenwald run on the Cap comic book. The fight scenes between Captain America and the Winter Solider, who DEFINITELY ISN”T SOMEONE FROM THE FIRST MOVIE THAT WE THOUGHT WAS DEAD are really exceptional, and are easily the equal (and probably the better), of any similar fight scenes scene in the superhero comic movie genre we’ve seen to date.

55a6e3f3_4a4wxtwEven more so than usual, Marvel spends as much time on character development as it does on action scenes here, and at least 4 of the main characters end up significantly different people at the end of this film, than they are at the beginning. This isn’t an inconsiderable achievement in this genre, and you really get the sense that in terms of the continuity that Marvel is creating in their cinematic universe, that this one is a game changer. They will be building on the character and plot development from this one for a long time.
For the comic lovers among us, we get Batroc the Leaper (BTW, 12 year old me would like to sincerely thank Kevin Feige for making it possible for 40 year old me to see BATROC KICKING IN A MOVIE!), Arnim Zola going full Zola, Crossbones, a Doctor Strange reference, and some after the credits geekiness that I won’t spoil for you, but we finally see someone who comics fans know as the true leader of Hydra, as well as a sneak peak at some future possible Avengers that DEFINITELY AREN”T THE MUTANT CHILDREN OF MAGNETO.

On a related note, apparently I’ve been waiting my whole life for Robert Redford to play a Marvel villain, and I didn’t even know it. In this film, he sets the bar so high in the “Former critically acclaimed leading man who now plays the villain in action movies so as to lend credibility to said movies” category, that I’m not sure that even Michael Douglas will be able to catch up.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable action movie, and Marvel needs to be signing up the Russos to a long term deal, right quick.
Rating: A

 

Movies I’ve watched: Noah by Darren Aronofsky

Noah is the story of a prehistoric hippie (played by Russell Crowe, in a role that he is perfectly suited for, as he gets to scowl and yell a lot), who is told by his Kreator that the world is about to be destroyed. Everyone’s got to go, except for Noah’s family, and every animal on earth. And so the Kreator sends a supernatural monster with a face made of stone to help him.

But enough about Jennifer Connolly.

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Jennifer Connelly, in Noah

I’ll never understand how any studio thought handing over the reins to one of the Bible’s (now available at that creepy Christian book store down the street that somehow stays open even though you never see anyone inside) most beloved stories, to one of modern cinema’s most sacrilegious directors (you can google Jennifer Connelly Dildo, for just a taste of the Aronofsky oeuvre), was a good idea.

But they did. And so we have Noah, a Clash Of The Titans for the bible set. But instead of a gorgon we get a rock monster, and instead of Liam Neeson we get Anthony Hopkins, who has played the “wise old man on the mountain” cliché so many times that Aaronofsky finally just decided to have him literally play a wise old man on a mountain. And instead of a great biblical epic, we get Noah.

It’s not that there isn’t some entertainment to be gleaned here. In fact, the second act of the film is fairly strong, as it’s essentially an hour-long tribute to the Rocky training montage, but instead of Talia Shire we get a million snakes, and instead of Burgess Meredith we get the Kreator. Aaronofsky means this to be a cautionary tale, using the mythology of our past to teach us lessons about our future. But everyone in the film is so utterly unlikable (with the exception of the deliciously campy Ray Winstone, which is unfortunate as he’s actually supposed to be the villain of the piece), that it’s hard to not to agree with the Kreator and root for him to wipe everyone out and to just leave the whole planet to the birds & bees.

article-2576912-1C18F1E500000578-346_634x449Noah in particular is to be despised, as he’s initially played as a prehistoric Jerry Garcia, but morphs quickly into a loathsome ideological martyr, so convinced in his species’ shortcomings that he’s not only willing, but eager, to sacrifice his entire family to his Kreator’s whims.

Oh, and can anyone remind me of the bible verse where everyone gets shotguns? That would be great. I’ll wait.

This is an easy film to mock, but it’s not terrible by any stretch. But if you want to learn about how to protect the environment, watch The Inconvenient Truth. And if you want to learn about the bible, read the bible. And if you want a somewhat entertaining, overblown special effects epic masquerading as a environmental puff piece, you can watch Noah.

Rating: C+

Movies I’ve Watched: The Raid 2 – Berendal by Gareth Evans

Iko Uwais, in his earlier, rumplier days

Iko Uwais, in his earlier, rumplier days

The Raid: Redemption (what the lead character is redeeming is never quite explained) might be the best pure action movie ever made; a balls-to-the-wall non-stop thrill ride, blah blah blah. It was the story of Rama (played by my wife’s secret Indonesian boyfriend Iko Uwais), a rookie SWAT team member that gets stuck on a impossible mission to raid (that’s why it’s called The Raid) a crime-ridden apartment building and capture the ganglord that lives at the top of it.

It’s awesome. You should watch it.

I’ll wait.

A sequel was not only to be expected, but to be relished. Of course we want to see a repetition of the closed-system brilliance of the first movie. I can just see the studio executives relishing at the cash cow potential: Let’s put him in a bigger building this time! Or maybe a train? What about a plane? What if the whole movie was set in one of those little clown cars and Rama has to fight 256 circus professionals to win the day?

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Hammer Girl. She has 2 hammers.

We’ll never know how my ideas would have worked out, as director Gareth Evans has veered so far away from the tone of the first film, that I’m not even sure he was ever involved with that movie in the first place. The lead character is the same, and he’s played by the same actor…and that’s about it.

We join him about 5 minutes after the first film. He’s congratulated on a job well done, and as a reward is given the worst assignment of all time: He’s got to go undercover as a Jakartan mobster, infiltrating an Indonesian crime syndicate that’s in a permanent state of détente with a Yakuza clan that’s set up shop in their country. Why a rookie SWAT team grunt with no undercover training is given this extremely difficult task is not explained, and SHAME ON YOU FOR ASKING.

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One of several dance sequences in the film

After 3 years in prison as a bit of a “get-to-know-you” mixer, Rama is ready for his new job: Protecting Ucho (son of the boss of the Indonesian mob, played smolderingly by Arifin Putra), as he shakes down pornographers for protection money. Ucho isn’t really satisfied with his lot in life, and spends the rest of the movie as a mutated Sonny Corleone (but without that character’s competency or loyalty), angrily bucking against his father’s complacent authority. Things escalate, and then everyone beats everyone else up.

The end.

Now, this is a still a kicking movie, as my wife likes to call martial arts films. Gloriously so, in fact. If you liked the incredible martial arts action sequences of the first film, then you’re set here, and are guaranteed to get your moneys worth. They are absolutely incredible, and there’s also a car chase that is so definitive as the new raised bar for that particular trope, that I almost expected them to dig up Steve McQueen’s corpse and pee on it at the end. Evans absolutely makes his bones here as the premier action film director of our time. How every studio on earth isn’t breaking down his door to direct their terrible franchises, is beyond me.

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Smoldering

But it’s a vastly different film from the first installment, both in plot, and in tone.

Where the Raid was contained, the Raid 2 is wide-open. Where the Raid was utterly simple, the Raid 2 is maddeningly complex. And since Gareth Evans opens up his plot, he leaves it wide open for the types of questions that the first film cleverly skirted:

1)   Why are there no police in Indonesia? These guys tear up half the county with nary a siren to be heard.

2)   Why do no professional gangsters in Jakarta seem to own or use guns? Do they not know how to use them? Is there a metal shortage? If a guy ran down the street at me with a baseball bat, I wouldn’t think “Ah, let’s engage this gentleman in fisticuffs”. I’d think “Ah, he’s dead, since I’ve already shot him in the head, and isn’t it silly to be a gangster with a baseball bat?”

3)   This is a follow-up to question 2: Where did everyone learn martial arts? Is there a massive school in Jakarta that just trains all potential gangsters to be Pencak Silat bad-asses? If I led an army full of martial arts masters, I’d like to think that I’d be a little more ambitious than shaking down karaoke bars for protection money, but that’s just me.

4)   Why did Iko Uwais cut his hair? He looked so cute in the first one. (Question 4 submitted by my wife)

This really is one of those rare sequels that outshine the original, but it’s kind of unfair to compare the two films, as they are incredibly different. The first is a martial arts film, with a brilliantly bare action movie framework. The second is a full-on gangster epic, which reminded me tonally of modern classics like Infernal Affairs, and New World, though it never quite matches up to those films in terms of character development, or in emotional complexity. It also happens to have a whack-load of beautifully shot martial arts & action scenes in it, which will probably mean boffo box office, but nowhere near the critical cachet of those movies. Fantastic film.

Rating: A