Review: Snowpiercer (2014, Bong)


Contains spoilers

Bong Joon-ho, and only Bong Joon-ho, would have a film that features its protagonist tripping on a fish, in slow-motion no less, during an axes-out action scene. Bong, and only Bong, would make a film that allows the wildly divergent performances of grim revolutionary Chris Evans and villain-out-of-a-Roald Dahl book Tilda Swinton to successfully play off each other in the same space. And how many filmmakers would make a blockbuster that has the audaciousness to suggest, especially since the film itself thrives off a directly parallel narrative structure of rigidity, that structural disbandment isn’t enough; that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch may be the best solution to humanity’s suffering?

For those of you just getting on the Bong Joon-ho train; welcome. It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where this filmmaker’s greatest strength, constructing a tonal playground within genre films, would be anyone else’s weakness. His is a consistent inconsistency if you will. A strangely cock-eyed and playful sense of sick slapstick humor, a kind found in other Korean films but never to this degree or application. I always sit there marveling “how does this work?” Go back to the mourning scene in The Host or the chase sequences in Memories of Murder; the pitch black hilarity of bodies bumbling awkwardness presents itself in intensely serious or emotionally wrought moments. Despite there being much to love in Snowpiercer’s deployment of action, Bong relies too heavily on shaky-cam amidst broader conceptual inventiveness, trying to create chaos in the claustrophobic space rather than playing into his penchant for the Clumsy Body Ballet. It’s the only somewhat significant disappointment with the film I can claim, largely made up for by Bong’s outside-the-box approach to depicting decimation and physical conflicts.

The film’s structure and the train are uniquely one and the same. As we rise up the ranks the train design intricately details quarantined worlds of increasing color, imagination, and fanned out purpose. The gaps of the world gradually fill in for us and the characters. Narrative is literally pushed forward.

We’re in the middle of an endlessly downbeat trend of self-serious blockbuster fare. Post-apocalypse looks and sounds the same, house style reigns supreme (thanks Marvel). Studios are petrified of projecting anything other than gravity. ‘Humor’ is either absent, forcibly injected via side characters, or filtered through the unappealing character trait ‘arrogance’. By contrast, the world of Snowpiercer is like a vital antidote, inspired by the best bits of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (pre-whimsy overdose days) among others. Worlds within worlds of immaculate and invigorating production design. These spaces are used for all kinds of mayhem, as building blocks for creative and varied action, even down to the way the train’s movement itself, not just individual car settings, contributes to form and story on at least two separate occasions (night goggles and going around the bend).

Snowpiercer is also self-aware, having its first act look, and feel, like current filmic dystopia. World building mostly comes through naturally in dialogue or constant corners. One gets the feeling that repeat viewings will yield many rewards, always picking up something new along the detail-oriented way.

Even on a first viewing, there are so many tangible details that work their way into story, bringing the characters experiences, both daily and uncommon, to life. The restricted perspective of the proles, Happy New Year!, the Candy Land classrooms and propaganda, the contrast and mystery we feel as the woman in yellow visits the stables, missing limbs, are bullets extinct?, protein bars, the telling and unexpected relative indifference portrayed in the sushi scene, the last cigarette on Earth, the creation and use of cautionary tales, train and time being inextricable, train babies. The list goes on and on and on.

Curtis (Chris Evans) as the ‘hero’ is deconstructed and turned on its head in a way that recalls this year’s The LEGO Movie (in that case the ‘chosen one’). Curtis is kept a very narrow character; all these folks in the lower cars are defined by their plan and their goals. When we finally learn more about him, it cripples the rendering of this ‘reluctant hero’. His backstory (so horrifying it crosses over to being, again, weirdly funny) suggests a possible double feature with Gremlins for their out-of-nowhere Whoa, Shit Just Went Dark monologues. This is also the moment when A. focus and motivation shifts towards Song Kang-ho’s former prisoner Namgoong Minsu and B. Curtis becomes tempted by Wilford (Ed Harris). Was it worth losing so many people just to get to the front of the train? Is revolution more costly than productive? Is the logic of the system just the bitter truth of their circumstances, a necessary order amidst otherwise chaos? Or is Namgoong Minsu’s idea of obliteration, and beginning again, the way to go? Snowpiercer seems to takes up with the latter although it’s, again, more shaded than that, allowing Curtis his final act of personal redemption and an open-ended ending that can be seen as optimistic or pessimistic depending on how you look at it (Bong seems to feel optimistic, me a bit of both).

Snowpiercer’s messy absurdities coincide with the tightness of the world and structure, putting Bong’s commitment front and center. It’s a ludicrous premise that he wholly commits to, a commitment that makes acceptability of messy overtness. His offbeat and unpredictable extravaganzas can yield falters, but it’s the small trade-off for the twisted exuberance Bong spins off at us any given moment. Indeed, for all this praise, I’d possibly place Snowpiercer at the bottom of his work so far, which should say something about just how enamored of this man I am.  If you lift up its unsubtle outer shell, it’s a story with surprisingly dense ideas, and perhaps within is more unsubtlety, and within that…. well you get what I mean.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ve said it before, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker working today that I admire or revere more. I’m a Bong completest (not hard with only 5 films) and have read the only book written on his work. His films, without fail, make me feel invigorated and uncommonly (even for me) engaged with cinema (and within that, genre film) as a medium. I spent most of Snowpiercer either beaming at the screen, laughing at the screen, or in awe of the screen.
– I don’t think Gilliam (John Hurt) was in cahoots with Wilford. Just my take.
– The only time, that I can see, the camera move from right to left is when Curtis makes a big move toward Mason.
– So Wilford is basically kind of like a variation of Cristoff from The Truman Show. Except making eggs in a bathrobe casual.
– Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung starring in a badass father-daughter franchise. Someone make this happen.
Snowpiercer is so quotable, the idea of quotable films are sort of a rarity today. Mean Girls. What the fuck else is there? “I learned babies taste best”, “Be a shoe”, etc.
– I haven’t even talked about the performances. Song Kang-ho (who has more star presence than everyone and their families) forever and ever and ever and ever; obviously. He and Joaquin Phoenix are my two favorite living actors. And now I just want Tilda Swinton and Bong to collaborate again because the two are so in sync re: their twisted sensibilities that it’s a match made in heaven.
– So I don’t know exactly what Weinstein’s cuts were going to be, but I have a feeling it would have been a lot of the humor beats. Which is so sad because I feel like the culture at large is so allergic to risks in tone and having multiple planes of atmosphere. I realize there’s a lot of current pop culture bashing in this review, but I honestly think Snowpiercer is indicative of something that is lacking in big budget fare today.


Review: Under the Skin (2014, Glazer)

I’m going to say this right now; I know it’s early in the year and I’ve hardly seen anything, but if I see another 2014 I love more than this it’ll be a great year. The covert and beguiling Under the Skin rattled me to my core.

Image-centric storytelling, with roots in experimental cinema, that distances itself from mankind. Birth to death, human as alien, alien as human. Firmly divided into two parts, routine and the failing quest for basic human pleasures, with the key transitional scene being Laura’s (nobody has any names, including Laura, but she’s billed as such so it’s just easier for me to follow suit) (Scarlett Johansson) encounter with a man with neurofibromatosis. Before that, she goes about her business, luring and leading men into an abstract and oily black digestive space. There’s no connection between her and her body, her victims, or feelings. But gradually the loneliness starts to sink in, and with it the isolation that humans may experience. She begins to seek out basic human pleasures like eating, sex, and companionship, inquisitive and nervous like a child. She knows she needs something, but is unsure how to go about it.

When Under the Skin ended, I felt like I’d been scooped out from the inside. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest films I’ve ever seen. Scarlett Johansson is mainly a presence for the first half, removed and captivating. And then in the second half she is heartbreaking; confused, yearning and unfulfilled. The final minutes, in which she is pursued by a man in the musky never-ending forest, is so palpable; you can feel her fear. Predator to prey. The second she desires the human instinct she loses so much agency. She becomes vulnerable and susceptible, her lair further and further away, unable to reconcile that yearning. We sense the irreparable loss of that center, her time dwindling. My boyfriend found something peaceful about the one-with-the-snow ending, but I didn’t. I just can’t; it’s not in my nature.

The formalism contributes to a new withdrawn perspective of ourselves, as something Other and incomprehensible. The thick Scottish accents further that distance, as does Mica Levy’s slinky and exotic high-pitched string score, and the sound design where much is compressed and blanketed over. Take for instance, as an example of said withdrawn perspective, the way Glazer shoots the scene on the beach, in which attempted rescue causes a chain reaction of familial death, a wailing abandoned baby as sole survivor. Laura, and thus we, take all of it in at once and for what it is (death) with unfeeling coldness. The discrepancy between what is happening, and how we see it, is very disturbing. And then Laura murders a man with a rock, and it’s the opposite of how murder is usually depicted in film. There is no close-up, no sound effect, and no clear view because Laura is crouching with her back to us. The impact of the scene is that there is no impact, and that lack of impact in turn translates to its own unique impact for the audience.

The film does not pass judgment on Laura. As she observes us, we observe her, and ourselves through her. Another layer to this is gradually added when Laura begins to observe herself, in a successive set of mirror scenes as she considers her new form. This observation becomes out-of-body in the end. No mirror is needed in her last moments. There’s certainly an angle on femininity, female sexual power, what it means to be a woman, and examining the male gaze, but I can’t parse through what I take from that with one viewing.

Generally, I think more filmmakers and producers need to put their trust in the communicative power of the image (and in viewers), especially since it’s what the medium inherently is to begin with. Under the Skin hypnotically uses impressionistic imagery and Scarlett Johannson’s face as narrative (there is very little dialogue overall) for a final product about existential isolation and irreconcilable cognizance that I still haven’t been able to shake two weeks later.

It’s the Little Things:
– Speaking of the power of the image, I couldn’t help but think of “Hannibal” which is putting more stock in abstract strokes of impressionism in its cinematography, editing, and score than most films I see.
– The section of Levi’s score used during the attempted sex scene is astonishing stuff. Astonishing.
– The final scene in the forest. I don’t even know what to say about it except that I cried but in a way that evoked rare kinds of feeling in me (not in the volume of tears as there weren’t many, but in the profundity and sadness of it).
– The shot where Laura scoots back to the wall in the forest’s rest area hut
– The digestion scene disturbed the hell out of me and made me jump a bit. Ever wonder what a Suck-O-Matic for people would look like?
– So I was well aware of the hidden camera methods of working that make up a lot of Johansson’s van-cruising interactions. And I kind of wish I hadn’t as it’s impossible not to be distracted by it once you know it. The unnatural naturalness of them are given a context I wish I didn’t have.

Review: Looper (2012, Johnson)

With three films under his belt, it’s clear that Rian Johnson loves to tinker with genre form, structure, presentation and expectations. With 2005’s Brick, an audaciously bold vision of Hammett-style noir set in the emptied outskirts of high school suburbia, Johnson presented two tried and true genres and welded them together to create something that had not been done before. It was a concept that could have and should have fallen to pieces for, well, pick a reason. But it didn’t. His third film Looper sees a repairing of the director with now bona-fide star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This time, they take on sci-fi, using high concept to ask questions about cycles, or loops if you will, of violence, selfishness and stepping outside routine monotony to look at who we have become and the choices we make.

Looper gets the world-setting out of the way in its first act with expositional narration delivered by Levitt with grade-school lesson preciseness. The basics are this; the year is 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet but it will have been in 30 years only to be immediately outlawed. Since circumstances make it impossible to get rid of a body in the future, the criminal underworld send those they want gone back to 2044 to be killed by ‘loopers’.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. He spends his days executing, taking drugs that are administered via eye drops and partying at the club that his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) owns. Being a looper means you make serious change, which from the looks of things, cannot be said for the greater populace. He is saving up to go to France. Lately, contracts are increasingly being terminated as loopers are being forced to kill their older selves, thereby “closing the loop”. This means they get a ginormous payday, an early retirement and the knowledge that they have 30 more years until they bite the dust.

The story kicks into gear when Bruce Willis, playing the older Joe, is sent back but escapes with a questionable agenda of his own. The younger Joe has to track down his eventual self so he can save face with Abe and his goons who are now after him.

The near-future Johnson creates is shrouded in big-picture ambiguity and is brought to life by minutiae and the immersion into an underground subset of life in 2044. The technology has progressed but has a tinkered rusty old-world feel to it. The gadgetry and panoramic views that can potentially drown out other sci-fi is smartly nowhere to be seen, mostly because the budget does not support it. Looper keeps small-scale dystopia in check throughout, throwing expectations out the window by having the second half set far removed from what we commonly think of as sci-fi settings. In fact, it comes to feel more like a ‘protecting the ranch’ kind of Western.

The marketing for Looper reminded me of the marketing for Brave. Both decided to focus on the basic ideas, and exclusively cover the first third to first half of their products. There were audience members who are thrown by the turns each film takes. Frankly, we need more marketing of this kind. While there are problems that emerged for me upon reflection, the unpredictability of most of the film was thrilling. It is a sensation that does not come around often, that sense of not knowing where a film is going. There are a couple of sequences that took me by such surprise that I felt like a kid in a candy store. There are moments when Looper had me gleaming. Most of this can be attributed to the non-formulaic storytelling, but some of it can be credited to how the film was sold to the public. It is proof that we rely far too much on what we see from trailers and that trailers have for the most part lost the art of intrigue. I hope more marketing campaigns take this route in the future.

Johnson and Levitt have gone on record talking about the cycle of violence the film comments on. It humanizes the concept by pointing out that at the center of violence in the abstract, you have people making decisions. What is this catalyst and how can it be changed? What drives a sense of responsibility? Would our actions be unrecognizable to our former selves? Johnson successfully walks that fine line between indulging in onscreen violence without it compromising what he is trying to say.

Johnson’s cinematic eye consistently excites me, particularly in the way he uses the horizontal streak of the frame for maximum effect. By using widescreen to have multiple planes of movement happening at once, he utilizes back and forth stationary panning to follow the action as opposed to a more traditional cutting technique. This touch can be seen quite a lot in Brick as well. He calls attention to the different ways action can be shot and cut by having the scene where Willis escapes Levitt shown twice. The first time the camera is right up with the action, employing point-of-view shots and expected cutting choices. The second time we see the scene the camera is placed far away and the awkwardness of the scuffle is caught and even played for laughs. It’s a delightful moment that calls attention to how thoroughly formal elements dictate how we perceive what happens onscreen.

The hiccups in Looper feel more marked because it gets so much so right. This is one of the best films I have seen this year, and certainly a sci-fi flick for the books, but it cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

The older version of Joe, played by Willis, faces a surprising antihero-based dilemma. The groundwork is laid for a captivating older Joe and Willis brings what he can to the table. But the script increasingly treats him like a lazy subplot presence as opposed to a co-lead who is facing very tough decisions, confronting the fact of what he is willing to do at a chance for self-preservation. His role starts out strong; the diner scene between him and Levitt is probably the film’s highlight and I would have sopped up the glory of that scene more had I known it would sadly be the two actors’ only significant time onscreen together. Then older Joe is quickly demoted to provide a forcibly injected pacing jolt and to try and justify the existence of Piper Perabo’s wholly disposable character.

The ideas introduced are carried through to the end, but the character focus shifts too dramatically. Despite always keeping the younger Joe’s arc in eyesight, the central focus of Emily Blunt’s Sarah and Pierce Gagnon’s Cid (both doing fabulous work) cannot help but take away from the impact of the younger Joe’s conscience building. Sarah is introduced with a nice touch that immediately pushes her into a level past ‘love interest’ (a category I’d argue she does not fit in the first place). Johnson gives her perspective and right off the bat she becomes a character with feelings, motivations and backstory in her own right. If only the film could have succeeded at keeping Joe’s arc in the foreground throughout all of this.

The climax highlights how the two Joe’s become a footnote in their own film. The telekinetic piece of the Looper world puzzle (10% of the population has TK…?) is the only bit to feel out of place, and yet it becomes central to the story. Joe steps into a story bigger than him and the addicting dichotomy between the two Joe’s becomes underexplored. While I love the jagged curveball that Looper throws at us, Johnson struggles to keep what was introduced at the beginning in focus and the centrality of the two Joe’s, especially Willis, is somewhat compromised as a result. These shortcomings, while notable, do not change the fact that Looper remains an invigorating genre-affirming piece of science-fiction.

Screening Log: June 1st-15th, 2012 – Films #166-192

All grades are ultimately arbitrary and are just there for personal posterity.

167. Senso (1954, Visconti): A

168. The Furies (1950, Mann): A-/B+

169. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Fellini): A

170. Prometheus (2012, Scott): B+/B

171. The Devil and the Deep (1932, Gering): B-/C+

172. Faithless (1932, Beaumont): B-

173. Dishonored (1931, von Sternberg): B+

174. Rain (1932, Milestone): C-

175. Dames (1934, Enright/Berkeley): B+

176. Murder at the Vanities (1934, Leisen): B-

177. Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998): B+/B

178. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970): A

179. Claire (2001): C

180. Little Otik (2002, Svankmajer): B+

181. Come Drink with Me (1965, King Hu): B-/C+

182. Yes, Madam (1985): A-

183. She Shoots Straight (1990): B+

184. Sukeban Deka (1987): B

185. Gymkata (1985): F

186. Jack and Jill (2011,Dugan): F

187. The Beastmaster (1982): F

188. Rock n Roll Nightmare (1988): D

189. Roller Boogie (1979): D

190. Sextette (1979, Hughes): F

191. Betty Blue (1986, Beineix): B+/B

192. Infernal Affairs (2002, Lau & Mak): B+

List: Top 30 Summer Films to See (May-August)

This is a list of the 30 films I most look forward to seeing. As far as I can tell, all of these films are set for summer releases. I’m sure more release dates will be announced throughout the months. The ones I am eagerly awaiting to get release dates are Shut Up and Play the Hits and Alps. Both have distribution, with LCD Soundsystem’s final concert show doc acquired by the late great Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories.

There are several films on this list that I have already seen due to IFFBoston. I included them where I would have placed them before seeing them. Those will be bolded. I’m feeling pretty passionate about these 30 films as a whole. After the 30, I have a massive list of films that are on my to-see list and it should be kept in mind that they range from films I really want to see (Farewell, My Queen, Lovely Molly and Whores’ Glory. The latter would be on the list if I weren’t too lazy to shuffle it around) to films like Men in Black III (for Josh Brolin) and Dark Shadows (Burton completist) which I am largely unenthusiastic about but would still see at some point.

What films are you most looking forward to this summer?

First, an honorable mention:
G.I Joe: Retaliation. Why you ask? That looks positively idiotic. Well, first because the trailer makes it look like some honest-to-goodness fun. But really truly my reason boils down to this:

If you can deny the sexiness of Lee Byung-hun then I put forth that you are soulless. The promise of shirtless Lee Byung-hun is enough to get me to pay and see this.

30. Marvel’s The Avengers
Kicking off with a film I and the rest of the world have seen, this was at the top of most lists of this kind. I was looking forward to The Avengers, but as a Joss Whedon fan, not as a Marvel fan. I’m not a superhero film person or at least, I’m a tough sell in most cases. Thankfully, I thoroughly enjoyed The Avengers, more so than most films in this genre.

29. Untouchable (aka Intouchable)
Summary: After he becomes a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident, an aristocrat hires a young man from the projects to be his caretaker.

Reasons: It is hard to overstate the cultural phenomenon this film has been in France. It is the second most successful of all time at the French box office. Looks like a hearty crowdpleaser and it has Francois Cluzet, one of my favorite French actors. Color me curious.

28. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Summary: A documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Reasons: I know nothing about Abramovic outside of having heard of her and knowing of her importance. So this seems like a great opportunity to get some insight into her and her work.

27. Compliance
Summary: When a prank caller convinces a fast food restaurant manager to interrogate an innocent young employee, no-one is left unharmed. Based on true events.

Reasons: The most controversial and divisive film at Sundance. Reason enough for me.

26. 2 Days in New York
Summary: Marion (Delpy) has broken up with Jack (Two Days in Paris) and now lives in New York with their child. But when her family decides to come visit her, she’s unaware that the different cultural background held by her new American boyfriend Mingus (Rock), her eccentric father, and her sister Rose who decided to bring her ex-boyfriend along for the trip, added to her upcoming photo exhibition, will make up for an explosive mix.

Reasons: Saw this at IFFBoston (embargo prevented review), but this would have been placed here because of Julie Delpy’s directing/acting/writing involvement.

25. Sleepwalk with Me
Summary: A burgeoning stand-up comedian struggles with the stress of a stalled career, a stale relationship, and the wild spurts of severe sleepwalking he is desperate to ignore.

Reasons: Really strong response everywhere it has played, starting with Sundance at the beginning of the year.

24. Kumare
Summary: A documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples and unveil his greatest teaching of all.

Reasons: A doc about deception on a mass scale. Acquired by Kino Lorber. Interested to see what kind of perspective it takes.

23. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Summary: Faced with her father’s fading health and environmental changes that release an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy leaves her Delta-community home in search of her mother.

Reasons: The film that took this year’s Sundance by storm. Haven’t seen the trailer in my newly implemented effort to abstain from most trailers but the buzz surrounding it is more than enough to pique my interest.

22. Snow White and the Huntsman
Summary: In a twist to the fairy tale, the Huntsman ordered to take Snow White into the woods to be killed winds up becoming her protector and mentor in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen.

Reasons: As if we need more takes on fairy tales. However! This one actually looks entertaining even if it is preposterous that Theron would not be the fairest of them all against Kristen Stewart. Most people mean this as a knock on Stewart, but I don’t. Don’t get me started on the nonsense insults heaped onto her. It’s a testament to Theron. My main two reasons are: 1. Charlize Theron who looks like she is chewing some delicious scenery. 2. Look at some of the cast list for the dwarves: Ian McShane (!), Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost. Case closed.

21. Collaborator
Summary: A playwright whose marriage and career are in a free fall has an explosive run-in with his former neighbor, a right-wing ex-con.

Reasons: Olivia Williams in a starring role = I’m there. Martin Donovan’s first directorial effort.

20. The Loved Ones
Summary: When Brent turns down his classmate Lola’s invitation to the prom, she concocts a wildly violent plan for revenge.

Reasons: Ever since this Australian horror film was released back in 2009, I have been hearing about it. This will be the first time I will actually get to see this oft-talked about work. It is finally being released in the US.

19. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Summary: AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY is the first feature-length film about the internationally renowned Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei. In recent years, Ai has garnered international attention as much for his ambitious artwork as his political provocations. AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY examines this complex intersection of artistic practice and social activism as seen through the life and art of China’s preeminent contemporary artist.

Reasons: This doc, like many on this list, has been getting a lot of attention and I’ve been hearing about it for a while now. I think its pretty obvious that this sounds completely fascinating.

18. The Queen of Versailles
Summary: A documentary that follows a billionaire couple who live in a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles, built on the success of the time-share industry.

Reasons: Saw at IFFBoston. You may ask yourself why you should care about these people, but the film allows you to feel disgust and empathy without compromising itself. I had wanted to see it since the buzz surrounding it started and I can tell you it is well worth seeking out.

17. Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Summary: Breast cancer has become the poster child of corporate cause-related marketing campaigns. Countless women and men walk, bike, climb and shop for the cure. Each year, millions of dollars are raised in the name of breast cancer, but where does this money go and what does it actually achieve?

Reasons: Another doc that looks like it is asking some imperative questions and is able to come up with some telling information. I cannot wait for this.

16. Lawless
Summary: Set in the Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a bootlegging gang is threatened by authorities who want a cut of their profits.

Reasons: I expected this to be a lot higher, especially considering this was directed by none other than John Hillcoat and boasts a screenplay and music by Nick Cave. And take a look at that sick cast. The last time these two teamed up we received the gritty existential western gift that is The Proposition. I have high expectations for this, but I admit that the trailer (which in hindsight I should not have watched), presented a more conventional looking film. I keep in mind though that the business of trailers is to make things look conventional. The one thing that really stuck out to me was Guy Pearce who looks creepily searing. I’m still highly anticipating this. The Proposition is one of my favorite films.

15. Polisse
Summary: A journalist covering police assigned to a juvenile division enters an affair with one of her subjects.

Reasons: Been waiting for this since it premiered at last year’s Cannes, precisely one year ago. Word has been strong. Oh and it has the beauteous Nicholas Duvauchelle.

14. Beyond the Black Rainbow
Summary: Despite being under heavy sedation, Elena tries to make her way out of Arboria, a secluded, quasi-futuristic commune.

Reasons: Seeming to blatantly and proudly take from Cronenberg, Kubrick and an endless amalgam of mind-bending influences, this seems crafted with cult status in mind, which tends to make me weary. But I cannot deny this looks awesome and I cannot wait to see if it can deliver and earn the status it desperately wants.

13. Searching for Sugar Man
Summary: Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock ‘n’ roller, Rodriguez.

Reasons: Like the majority of the films on this list, there’s been a lot of strong buzz surrounding this one. I don’t know what else to say besides it shooting up to the top of my to-see list since reading about it.

12. I Wish
Summary: 12-year-old Koichi, who has been separated from his brother Ryunosuke due to his parents’ divorce, begins to believe that the new bullet train service will create a miracle when the first trains pass each other at top speed.

Reasons: New Hirokazu Koreeda. Need I say more?

11. The Dark Knight Rises
Summary: Eight years after Batman took the fall for Two Face’s crimes, a new terrorist leader, Bane, overwhelms Gotham’s finest, and the Dark Knight resurfaces to protect a city that has branded him an enemy.

Reasons: I don’t really need reasons here. This is clearly the most anticipated film of the summer along with one or two more on this list. Admittedly, Nolan’s Batman work is my least favorite stuff of his and I merely like The Dark Knight. The last third left a bitterly dismal taste in my mouth that I’ve never been able to wash out. But I trust in Nolan; its obvious he’s remarkable at what he does and we can justifiably expect a lot from him. But I’m still not sold on Hathaway.

10. Indie Game: The Movie
Summary: Follows the dramatic journeys of indie game developers as they create games and release those works, and themselves, to the world.

Reasons: Talk about this has been really prominent (don’t you love my original reasons?) and to get an inside look at what it takes to be working on the fringes of this industry is sure to be rewarding on multiple levels.

9. The Invisible War
Summary: An investigative and powerfully emotional documentary about the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the US military, the institutions that perpetuate and cover up its existence, and its profound personal and social consequences.

Reasons: A topic that makes for essential viewing, this is a problem that needs to be brought to the forefront of conversations. Hopefully this film will help this happen. From Kirby Dick, director of This Film is Not Yet Rated.

8. Paul Williams Still Alive
Reasons: Saw at IFFBoston. Basically you should see this because its a documentary about Paul Williams. And Paul Williams is a genius. And if you don’t like Paul Williams I don’t want to know you.

7. Brave
Summary: Determined to make her own path in life, Princess Merida defies a custom that brings chaos to her kingdom. Granted one wish, Merida must rely on her bravery and her archery skills to undo a beastly curse.

Reasons: Um…a new Pixar film that is not part of the Cars franchise? That’s just for starters. My two main reasons are the following. First, it is the first Pixar film featuring a female protagonist, and it looks like a refreshing rejection of the traditional expectations of women. The sprightly and flame-haired Merida looks like a much-needed role model for young girls that can counteract the toxicity they are exposed to on a daily basis. Second, this looks to be the most visually stunning Pixar setting since Finding Nemo. Every time I see a picture or trailer for the film I am blown away by how absurdly gorgeous this looks. I want to live on this world already. I want to escape into this film and I haven’t even seen it yet.

6. Killer Joe
Summary: When a debt puts a young man’s life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance.

Reasons: And the list takes a turn as we transition from Pixar to the NC-17 rated film from the bunch. William Friedkin and Tracy Letts collaborating again, adapting one of Letts’ plays, after 2005’s claustrophobic Bug which is one of my favorite films of the aughts. I’ve been dying to see this for a while now. It looks brutal, funny, and brutally funny.

5. Oslo, August 31st
Summary: One day in the life of Anders, a young recovering drug addict, who takes a brief leave from his treatment center to interview for a job and catch up with old friends in Oslo.

Reasons: I admit I’m not the biggest fan of Joachim Trier’s Reprise, although I won’t deny its status as one of the more assured pieces of debut filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Still, I’ve been anxiously awaiting this since last year’s Cannes debut. Its placement should indicate just how much I am looking forward to this one.

4. The Imposter
Summary: A documentary centered on a young Frenchman who convinces a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who went missing for 3 years.

Reasons: Saw at IFFBoston and it’s going strong as my favorite 2012 film so far. It would have been this high on the list regardless. I’ve been hooked since reading the one sentence summary above. Don’t read any reviews. Don’t watch any trailers. Just see The Imposter.

3. Take This Waltz
Summary: A happily married woman falls for the artist who lives across the street.

Reasons: Written and directed by Sarah Polley, I am counting down the days til this film’s release. The summary sounds like this story has been done a million times. But all signs point to a uniquely honest and complex telling of the grey areas of relationships, feelings and monogamy. It looks challenging and uncompromising. And it’s named after a Leonard Cohen song.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Summary: A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

Reasons: New Wes Anderson. Case closed.

1. Prometheus
Summary: A team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.

Reasons: To me, the trailer for Prometheus is the advertising equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off the stage. Every time I see this trailer in theaters, my thought is that everyone should just pack it on up and go home. I’m trying to avoid Ridley Scott’s contradictory and increasingly distracting comments. I’m trying to go into this as blind as I can outside of that first full trailer and general unavoidable information about the film. I’m also trying to keep my anticipation to a controlled level as I tend to be let down for films I get this excited about. But damn if this doesn’t look like its going to own the summer movie season.

The rest unordered:
The Woman in the Fifth
Farewell, My Queen
5 Broken Cameras
Lovely Molly
Lola Versus
Where Do We Go Now?
The Good Doctor
Planet of Snail
Side by Side
Your Sister’s Sister
The Awakening
The Dictator
Safety Not Guaranteed
Easy Money
Magic Mike
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
To Rome with Love
Elena (Russian)
First Position
Dark Horse
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Jack and Diane
Bel Ami
Mother’s Day
God Bless America
Dark Shadows
The Bourne Legacy
Hope Springs
The Pact
Ruby Sparks
The Expendables 2
Chicken with Plums
Premium Rush
Chernobyl Diaries
Men in Black 3
The Watch
Little White Lies
Red Lights
Total Recall
Neil Young Journeys
Whores’ Glory

Screening Log: March 15th-31st, 2012 – Films #61-82

Heading into April I thought I would be done with my goal for watching some films from the 1920’s and 1930’s. But as I look at what I roughly have planned for the 1940’s, I realize I do not want to move on from these decades until I finish up what I had planned to watch. The films I have planned before moving on are A Woman in Paris, Beggars for Life, October, Joyless Street, Spies and Sadie Thompson for the 1920’s and Earth, Desire, Quadrille, A Day in the Country, Street Angel, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, City Streets, The Four Feathers, Madam Satan, Land without Bread, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Monkey Business and The Crime of Monsieur Lange for the 1930’s. These will likely comprise the majority of the films I see in April.

Once again, the letter grades are entirely arbitrary, and merely reflect my own subjective interest and response to the film on a first viewing.

62. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927, Hitchcock): C

63. Love Me Tonight (1932, Mamoulian)
: A-

64. 21 Jump Street (2012, Lord & Miller): B+

65. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Lang): B

66. Basket Case (1982, Henenlotter): B-

67. Holiday (1938, Cukor): A/A-

68. Ladies They Talk About (1933, Bretherton and Knighley): B-

69. Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011, Rapaport): B-

70. Alexander Nevsky (1938, Eisenstein): C/C-

71. The Threepenny Opera (1931, Pabst): C

72. A Day at the Races (1937, Wood): B+

73. Sabotage (1936, Hitchcock): B/B-

74. Tabu (1931, Murnau): B+

76. The Pearls of the Crown (1937, Guitry): A-

77. The Hunger Games (2012, Ross): B

78. Sisters of the Gion (1936, Mizoguchi): B

79. Destiny (1921, Lang): B-/C+

80. Osaka Elegy (1936, Mizoguchi): B+

81. King of Devil’s Island (2011, Holst): B

82. The Story of a Cheat (1936, Guitry): A/A-

Review: Source Code (2011, Jones)

Review: Source Code (2011, Jones)
Originally posted at Criterion Cast on April 4th, 2011

Did you know that life is precious? Did you know that you should make every minute count? If you didn’t, Source Code is going to make sure you do. What starts out as a very tight and tense high concept science-fiction film eventually becomes a parable that bashes its message over our heads. The conclusion leaves an irreparably bitter taste in the mouth, made worse because the first two thirds of Source Code happen to be tremendously entertaining and absorbing.

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a Chicago train in the body of a man named Sean Fentress. A woman sitting across from him named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) engages him in conversation. Eight minutes later, the train blows up and Colter wakes up inside of a chamber where a military officer named Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on a screen and asks him if he has found the bomber. Not being able to find out any information about his own situation, he is told that he is inside a program called the Source Code. This allows someone from a narrow set of qualifications to enter the last eight minutes of a person’s life, in this case Sean Fentress. Fentress was on a Chicago train which, that morning, exploded with no survivors. Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) want Colter to use the source code to find out who the bomber is before the next anticipated attack takes place.

Source Code is structurally tight at ninety three minutes and creates equal intrigue between its two main settings. By having a mystery as the driving force both in and out of the source code, there is no lapse in interest. In the source code, Colter has to find the bomber. Outside of the source code, he has to figure out what has happened to him, where he is and why he is there. The revelations outside the source code bring additional layers of intensity to Colter’s time on the train.

Ben Ripley, who wrote the screenplay, knows exactly when to reveal certain information, spreading out the explanations and exposition evenly and effectively. It is consistently intriguing as it unfolds, even when certain reveals are somewhat predictable. Overall, this is an effective screenplay that works with a traditional structure to deliver on its inventive premise. Getting to see Colter’s succession of attempts within the source code allows for a wide array of situations, each building on the next. There are a lot of wonderful action sequences and tension wrung from each successive effort.

As strong as a lot of Ripley’s screenplay is, a skilled director is necessary to rein in the more inadequate aspects of the story. With characters that border on undeveloped and a more than familiar bomber scenario, Ripley’s strengths could have easily been drowned out by the story’s potential weak spots. Duncan Jones brings an attention to detail, making the most out of each scenario and the different ways we see the various attempts unfold. Jones is controlled and keeps a clear priority on the actors’ faces amidst the action, which helps add to the characterization that is somewhat absent or one note from the dialogue. A strong sophomore effort, the director proves for the second time he can excel in this genre. All the actors are satisfactory except Wright, who is tonally off, creating an over the top caricature that belongs in a different film entirely.

The climax is passed over quickly and compactly, revealing other hidden agendas. It turns out that the bomber plotline is really just an excuse to examine how people take time for granted. Colter understands this because of his mission, and thus so does the audience. He is able to experience firsthand a dire situation that forces him to make the most of his time. The message the film wants to get across is already implicit within the story. There is no need for specific dialogue that refers again and again to making life count. This sentiment is more than valuable, but not when it takes over the film entirely by the end with tactlessness both in visuals and dialogue.

In addition, the film goes to inordinate lengths to ensure an ending that allows moviegoers to leave the theater satisfied. The resolution of Source Code goes on for far too long in order to give the ending audiences assumedly want. This desperate and misguidedly elaborate setup becomes distracting, making the ending unearned and ineffective. Combined with the resolution’s incessant need to cornily illustrate the film’s message, the last third all but ruins the first two thirds.

It is those first two thirds though, that make Source Code worth seeing. The film delivers more often than not. The action is wholly satisfying because the premise allows the rare treat of seeing a situation played out in a number of different ways. It ever so slightly recalls the multiple lives in a video game or reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, without ever evoking either of these examples enough to distract. Source Code’s glaringly transparent final act may not destroy everything that came before it, but it unfortunately leaves an irremovable taint on what is otherwise a worthwhile time at the movies.