Category Archives: Film

Film: Snowpiercer

Miraculously, I managed to stumble into Snowpiercer (2013) with no preconceptions whatsoever. Well, beyond a general sense of positive buzz, that is…so imagine my surprise when I spent the first hour rolling my eyes and glancing at my watch. Then something curious happened: a switch flipped, and the film weirdly redeemed itself. In the end, I still think it’s a bloody awkward mess of a movie, half awful and half good. And yet, in a possibly accidental, unexpected way, it’s also kind of brilliant.

In the future, a climate change experiment goes wrong, plunging the world into a new ice age. Humanity goes extinct with the exception of those who were lucky enough to board the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circumnavigates the globe, defiantly serving as a last bastion for the survivors. The train is a closed ecosystem, and within it, a caste system emerges, with the privileged elite in the front and the lower-class waste in the back. It’s a brutally unjust set-up, and one that Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is determined to overthrow. Using intelligence smuggled back from mysterious allies, he and his team – including his sidekick (Jamie Bell), a woman whose son was stolen from her (Octavia Spencer), a security specialist (Song-Kong Ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) – lead a revolution to rush the front of the train, overthrow the dictatorship, and take over.

Taken literally, of course, the SFnal world-building is preposterous, so the script goes to great lengths to make it absolutely explicit that we are squarely in Metaphor Land: the train is the Earth, the passengers are humanity, yeah we get it. The approach is artless and obvious, a pretentious allegory that makes Elysium look masterfully subtle. Its message-y ambition feels like a sham, draped as it is across a plot that is – at first, anyway – blunt, hopelessly linear, and ultraviolent. The pacing is wildly uneven, and the tone is all over the map, from silly to super-serious and back again. Is this a brutal war epic, a dark comedy, a skiffy adventure, or an arthouse experiment? Perhaps it’s all of them at once, but if so, it doesn’t seem strategic or in-control about it; instead, it seems to be trying ideas randomly and keeping everything, whether it meshes, clashes, or both. By the midpoint, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

But as the party makes it way further and further toward the front of the train, Snowpiercer increasingly embraces its gonzo central concept, and somehow that saves it. With each train car they enter, the visionary metaphors get more outlandish. There’s this weird scene with Alison Pill, who is gleefully terrible as a school teacher brainwashing upper-class children with dogmatic Republican values. I hated the scene, but it kind of turned the film on its ass, escalating The Crazy in a way that serves the vision. The character start to matter, the blunt force trauma of the metaphors stops hurting, and a whole begins to take shape from all the unlikely parts. Even the film’s unsuccessful attempts to reverse engineer its implausible world – explaining the machinations of the train with too-late, sort-of cleverness – suit the kludgy nature of it. Then, as the final confrontation nears, Evans delivers this intense, shattering monologue that kind of aligns everything, Ed Harris turns up to drill home the final message, and it ends with a heartbreaking, breathtakingly beautiful final image.

What an absurd, fascinating mess it is – and that plays right into its ultimate, clunky metaphor, doesn’t it? Like the Earth, like its people, like life, Snowpiercer is at once terrible, awesome, disposable, and essential. Could it be its uneven grasp of craft actually works to the theme? After much consideration, I both loved and hated the film, and I’m very, very glad I saw it.

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Film: They Came Together

The formulaic Hollywood rom-com gets a satirical skewering in They Came Together (2014), an uneven but generally funny affair that leverages an impressive cast of Burning Love, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live vets. Joel (Paul Rudd) is a corporate drone for a candy company. Molly (Amy Poehler) runs a cute, indie candy store. When Joel’s company targets Molly’s labor of love shop for annihilation…well, you get the idea. They hate each other, they like each other, they hate each other again, then they like each other again. It’s destiny! You know the story.

Michael Showalter and David Wain’s script surrounds its comically no-frills star-crossed lovers with the romantic comedy genre’s every clichéd character, from Joel’s morally bankrupt girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), to his posturing asshole work rival (Michael Ian Black), to Molly’s sassy black girlfriend (Teyonah Parris), and on and on. It’s a genre ripe for parody, and They Came Together eviscerates it with gleeful abandon. At its worst, it’s clumsily on the nose; at its best, it’s, uh, subtly on the nose. And to keep things interesting, it throws in an outrageous gag out of left field every now and then. Definitely not high art, but it’s a great deal of fun, with a huge cast of talented comedy veterans.

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Film – Danger: Diabolik

Now here’s an enjoyable slice of stylized, sixties cheese. Based on an Italian comic, Danger: Diabolik (1968) is an amusingly retro crime caper with a dash of period political commentary. Diabolik (John Phillip Law, who looks pretty sharp in his skin-tight spandex costume) is the James Bond of master criminals. His favorite target is the government; his favorite accomplice is his beautiful girlfriend Eva Kant (Marisa Mell, who looks pretty sharp with her clothes constantly almost falling off). Diabolik and Eva have a science fictional secret lair with a fleet of sports cars, his-and-hers showers, and a rotating bed they bury in stolen money. Diabolik has made such a fool of the police that Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) comes up with a new strategy to rein him in: he turns up the heat on an organized crime kingpin named Ralph Valmont (Adolfi Celi). “It takes a thief to catch a thief,” Ginko says, promising to lay off Valmont if Valmont can deliver Diabolik. Let the heists, chases, and double-crosses begin!

Danger: Diabolik is dated, poorly dubbed, awkwardly paced, sexist, and silly. But it’s a great deal of fun, full of sex symbol eye candy, crazy psychedelic visuals, and groovy Ennio Morricone music. Director Mario Bava recaptures the comic book feel nicely, and while the trappings are largely wish-fulfillment fantasy, there’s an intriguing countercultural vibe to them – the greedy, indulgent antiheroes are also gleefully dismantling capitalism, after all. Of course, you could remove the plot entirely and it would still be fun watching Law and Mell slink around their preposterous hideout, making eyes at each other. Hardly a cinema masterpiece, it’s great in an ironically watched, lazy afternoon, one-step-removed kind of way.

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Film: Elysium

The problem with Neil Blomkamp movies, in my little two-film sampling, is that he doesn’t know when to quit. Like his debut District 9, Elysium (2013) is about thirty minutes of a good film surrounded by an hour and half of relentlessly brutal sci-fi action. It’s a visual feast, but I got so bored with its monotonously frantic battle scenes that I started writing this review just to give myself something else to do while the plot played out.

In the future, Earth is a Mad Maxian cyberpunk dystopia, so the rich, mostly white people build the space habitat Elysium, a One Percenter utopia. Downtrodden orphan Max da Costa (Matt Damon) always dreamed of making it to Elysium some day, but with the cards stacked against him, he fell in with a criminal crowd. The film opens as he’s trying to walk the straight and narrow, working the line at a robotics factory. When appalling safety conditions at the plant illustrate the film’s heavy-handed class warfare theme – uh, he gets a lethal dose of radiation – he suddenly finds himself with five days left to live. Only the magical autodocs of Elysium can save him: but how can he get there? Fortunately he’s got a criminal hacker connection named – of course – Spider (Wagner Moura), who might be able to make it happen. Provided, of course, he does One Last Job. But oh what a brutal job it is, and with unexpected complications.

When a film wears its metaphors on its sleeve this baldly, it’s kind of hard to take things seriously. But Elysium, with its tragic injustice and fraught, victimized heroes, takes itself very seriously indeed, bludgeoning its obvious message home with a sledgehammer. Fortunately, it’s fun to look at: from its nightmarish vision of a future Los Angeles that had me scrambling for Craigslist, to its perfected orbital suburbia, to all the little skiffy details in between, it’s got eyeball kicks to burn. And it’s got Matt Damon, who’s pretty good at the whole nonstop, violent action hero business. I wanted to like it.

But, uh, no. Its plot is, alas, a succession of well executed but hollow combat sequences that use plot coupon duct-tape to integrate Max’s fight for survival with the efforts of a nefarious Elysium overlord named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to initiate a coup and really ramp up the fascist awful. Foster is Razzy-worthy here, trying on a weird British accent to prove her villainy  – and if that doesn’t work, she throws in the odd French phrase. But wait, doesn’t she stand in for the ruling elite of western capitalism? Surely she should have stuck with American – this metaphor is broken! Anyways….also on hand is Blomkamp veteran Sharlto Copley, who plays a villain named Kruger so comically ruthless he might as well be a Borderlands 2 boss. Seriously, he carries a sword and has a forcefield. I can see the cut-scene now:  KRUGER! (Like Freddy Kruger…but worse!) Oh, and by the way, there is one other female character, if you were wondering: Frey (Alice Braga) is Max’s childhood sweetheart who, of course, has a sick kid and gets captured by the bad guys.

It’s pretty much a vacant, bombastic skiffy spectacle, then, with ill-fated symbolic ambition, a contrived, unconvincing plot, and a random grasp of its SFnal mechanics. I would love to have seen its production values applied to a different movie entirely.

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Film: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

A promising-looking period fantasy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) ultimately only proved to me that Luc Besson’s sense of humor doesn’t work for me in English or French. With a tone similar to The Fifth Element, it’s an imaginative but messy kitchen sink of unfunny humor and incongruous fantasy tropes.

Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is something of a French, female Indiana Jones: capable and adventurous, she’ll travel to the ends of the Earth to help her sister, who is desperately ill. Her plan – reanimate the mummified remains of a brilliant Egyptian doctor. (Uh, yeah, okay…) Unfortunately, her partner in this endeavor, Dr. Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), decided to practice his death-raising talents by mind-controlling a pterodactyl he hatched in a museum exhibit by sheer force of his mental will. For this, he’s been thrown in prison, of course. So Adèle needs to rescue the doctor to save her sister – while repeatedly butting heads with a police inspector and a big-game hunter who’ve been hired to capture the rogue pterodactyl. Got all that?

After a scattered but promising opening, wherein the film looked to be a playful fusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Amelie, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec rather quickly goes south. Its humor misses the mark, and its plot is pretty much a zany kludge designed to set up setpiece eyeball kicks. The production is certainly attractive, and so of course is Bourgoin, who executes Adèle’s energetic hijinks with aplomb. But in the end it’s more diverting than absorbing: silly background viewing with subtitles.

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Film: Thérèse

My silly crush on Audrey Tautou continues to lead me down unlikely filmic paths: Thérèse (2012) is the latest, and it’s an attractive, stately, and depressing tale of a woman trapped by circumstance.  Set in provincial France in the late 1920s, the film stars Tautou as Thérèse, a chain-smoking malcontent who enters into an arranged marriage to unify two wealthy families, hoping it will “cure” her of her different-thinking ways. Unfortunately, her husband Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) is a narrow-minded lout, who – along with everyone else – expects Thérèse to tow the family line and agree with its every status-minded decision. No, the marriage does not “cure” Thérèse: in fact, it sends her slowly, methodically over the edge.

Thérèse is a mostly cheerless but quite effective tale of a woman whose emotions are ahead of their time, even if her intellect is not.  Thérèse doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t want – which happens to be what everyone expects of her. Her stultifying plight is tragic, and Tautou’s understated performance sells it powerfully. Lellouche does a fine job as the husband, a character who both deserves and doesn’t deserve what happens to him: his character’s transformation is a nuanced and interesting one, making him less cardboard villain than hapless by-product of his era.  This is not a pleasant watch, or a bracing one, but it’s well made for its type.

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Film: Her

There’s a reason I review more spy films than science fiction films; spy films, in my opinion, tend to be better.  But if there were more SF films like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013),  that balance might tip in the other direction. Her is beautiful, thoughtful science fiction – a visual feast with heart , that mingles a classic artificial intelligence plot with incisive commentary about the ironic disconnectedness of our wired, socially networked present.

The great Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombley – given the atmosphere of the film, could the Philip K. Dick ring to that name be more appropriate?  Theodore is alone in a crowd, living in a future Southern California megalopolis, and he’s fallen on hard times in the wake of a divorce.  His empty life involves a day job writing copy and nights immersed in video games or having awkward phone sex.  Everything changes when he upgrades his personal operating system, and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  Samantha is an artificially intelligent, personal valet in the cloud – but she’s designed to be realistic, and to evolve. Rather than interacting with a servile subroutine, Theodore finds himself increasingly entangled in a complicated, evolving relationship with his OS, which turns out to be more emotionally charged than he ever expected. His feelings are real, but his girlfriend is not – or is she?

The film does have some flaws – a manipulative soundtrack overamps the melancholy at times, for example – and some unrealistic reaches. (Could somebody have a stable job as a dotcom copywriter and afford that apartment? Would powerful AIs of this nature be so casually, commercially available? Will moustaches and high-waisted slacks ever be back in? I’ll chalk those up to creative flourishes in the  world-building.) Her is still a great film, and thought-provoking science fiction – both for its convincing, visually lush future-building, and its broader philosophical questions about identity and the nature of reality. Hollywood isn’t known for its nuanced, intelligent treatment of these types of ideas, but Her is refreshingly smart and clear-eyed with them.  And, of course, the cast is terrific. Phoenix is a remarkably immersive actor, and he’s a wonderfully accessible window onto this future. Johansson is perfect voice casting for his disembodied love, and there’s fantastic support from a talented cast that includes Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, among others.  It all adds up to a quiet, moving, and atmospheric film about real characters with real problems in a real future. Heartfelt, touching, and imaginative stuff, and one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years.

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Film: Decision Before Dawn

In light of how soon it was produced after World War II, Decision Before Dawn (1951) has a surprising central conceit: its hero, Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), is a German soldier. In the latter days of World War II, Maurer is captured by a US intelligence officer, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart). A medic and an idealist, Maurer was caught up in the German war machine and did what he had to do…but when his fellow German prisoners murder his friend for speaking up cynically about his country’s chances, he volunteers to work for Rennick as a spy. It’s a new US initiative to send German POWs behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, and Maurer is given an important assignment: identifying the HQ of a panzer division that is sure to be deployed against an upcoming Allied assault. He parachutes behind enemy lines, and goes about his dangerous assignment – his resolve challenged at every turn as he confronts his countrymen. Maurer is determined to save his country by betraying it, but in the end he’ll be asked to risk everything for his ideals.

With an unusually nuanced glimpse into Germany’s war-time psyche, Decision Before Dawn is an occasionally clinical, but often powerful film. Especially compared to other wartime films of its era, it shies away from moral black-and-whites to paint the enemy in much more realistic terms. It’s helped immeasurably by Werner’s principled central performance and effective visual story-telling. Most importantly, perhaps, it has unparalleled geographic verisimilitude; filmed almost entirely on location, in the European rubble of a war just concluded, it feels uncommonly real compared to the usual soundstage fare. Some of the explosive action sequences are impressive even by modern standards.

Oh, there are old-fashioned elements here and there, and especially in the early-going – when the film is more in the American POV – the film is a bit stiff and conventional. But once the focus shifts to Maurer, it becomes quite a bit more. An excellent film…and another glaring omission from the Spy 100 list!

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Film: Nada

Prolific French director Claude Chabrol’s Nada (1974) is an odd piece, a cynical, politically charged crime caper that screams its era. As such it’s interesting, if not exactly enthralling. Based on my admittedly odd sampling, so far, Chabrol hasn’t exactly lived up to his reputation as the “French Hitchcock.”

A leftist anarchist group called the Nada Gang, led by hunky hippie Buenaventura Diaz (Fabio Testi), have a major political stunt in the works:  kidnapping and ransoming an American ambassador. But they need help, and recruit old hand André Épaulard (Maurice Garrel) onto their team. The team pulls off the job, lifting the ambassador from a brothel, but soon a sadistic, authoritarian policeman named Goemond (Michel Aumont) is on the case, trying to track them down – an investigation that leads to an explosive confrontation.

This combination of French New Wave production values, crime caper tropes, hippie fashions, and European politics is one of those movies that never quite transcends its era. I suspect there are elements of its politics and dark humor that simply aren’t translating, although its cynical message about colliding extremist ideologies comes through loud and clear. As a cautionary tale about how intentions leads to actions lead to consequences, I suppose it’s reasonably effective, and the final showdown is exciting, in a noirish, nihilistic way. But overall I struggled with this one, failing to find much artistry in its lengthy build-up.

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Film: The To-Do List

As film genres go, the teen sex comedy is mostly a toxic wasteland, but I enjoyed The To-Do List (2013), a messy but earnest indie film that tweaks the usual scenario in unexpected directions. In early nineties Boise, Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the class valedictorian and a straight-laced know-it-all, but she’s clueless about one subject: sex. Encouraged by her best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), Brandy turns her final summer at home into an extended session of sexual homework, determined to cross as many experiences off her list as possible before heading off to college – culminating in losing her virginity to sexy lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).

The To-Do List is a wildly uneven film. Considering its premise, it feels a bit structurally aimless, misdirecting its energies at too many relationship arcs (most egregiously, Bill Hader’s slacker lifeguard Willy). It felt like an extended, unmitigated director’s cut; a ruthless edit might have improved the comic pacing. The humor varies from genuinely funny to predictable. Its early 1990s period piece jokes, while occasionally inspired – Andy Samberg’s cameo in a Nirvana knock-off band, for example – are also overplayed.

But the film does get a lot right, starting with its cast. I’m a sucker for Plaza, who never quite shakes her April Ludgate delivery, but has fun inverting her usual disaffected apathy into hyper-engaged smart girl. I liked Porter’s hammy hot dude, and Johnny Simmons, practically spewing Gen X sensitivity as Brandy’s friend/love interest Cameron. Connie Britton and Clark Gregg are terrific as Brandy’s over-sharing mother and uptight father, and Donald Glover delivers the usual brilliant timing in a small role. There’s also something refreshingly honest about the way the film engages with teen sexuality in the pre-Internet era – how confused posturing and inaccurate word of mouth drive uninformed behavior. In some ways Brandy’s frontal assault on the subject is unrealistic, but the world and its people felt true, and the message – while often inelegant – is positive.

An imperfect and overlong film, then, but also well meaning, genuinely funny, with a great cast and a nice energy. On points, I’ll give it a thumbs up.

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