Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-ho

 

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, a class system evolves aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. Over time a class system evolves on the train, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train and poor inhabiting the back of the train. Tired of their poor living conditions, the riders in the back revolt, attempting to seize control of the engine.

First off, I love the international cast. This is the type of  international co-production that I like to see more of.  Considering the somber heavy tone of the story, it’s surprising that this movie was even made. Every actor fits their part and they all happen to be character actors in an ensemble piece.

Chris Evans makes an engaging lead, never letting his stardom get in the way of his character. Watching him play such a righteous character never once reminded me of Captain America, and that’s probably the best thing I can say. Tilda Swinton is wonderfully ridiculous. When she first appeared, it threw me off because it was so over-the-top. Her character seemed to belong in another film. I wondered if it was possible for someone like that to exist in that environment but as the story unfolded, Swinton’s commitment to her cartoonish portrayal changed my opinion.

Song Kang-Ho is always an entertaining presence. He is held back by a language barrier but that is not enough to contain his natural funniness. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer both make a dramatic impact with their supporting roles. Alison Pill also has a memorable cameo that teeters between creepy and satirically hilarious.

Bong Joon-Ho tells a good proper social science fiction story. The metaphor of the train representing the hierarchy of social class was handled with subtlety. This could vary for other viewers, but the film’s ideas and themes never felt heavy for me. As the lower class move up each train car in a series of action set pieces, I found myself slowly detaching from what was going on and comfortably sinking into the film’s ideas (a problem I had with Edgar Wright’s The World’s End earlier this year). The story’s themes brought me back to the time when I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. I thought about human nature, social class and the rich versus the poor, but never for too long because the characters were about to discover what’s in the next train car. The middle portion of the film does sag a bit, but Bong Joon-Ho delivers some nice twists and turns along the way.

I read the news about the Weinstein Company is trying to cut a shorter version of Snowpiercer for its upcoming American release. Even thinking in Harvey Weinstein’s terms (and believe me, witnessing the amount of Asian cinema has neutered by Weinstein for the last decade, I consider myself an expert),  I don’t see what he thinks Americans won’t understand about the social politics and story in Snowpiercer.

The only commercial concern that I can think of is the Korean language portions of the film because American audiences apparently dislike reading subtitles. Korean only takes up a small portion of the film. And actually, an universal translating device is aptly written into film for audiences that prefer to listen. That or Weinstein just wants to put down his authorial stamp for unearthing Asian cinema to the West. So don’t be patronized, if it’s available, please go see the original director’s version. It’s solid science fiction made with proper intentions by a cast and crew that are passionate about the material.

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The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The Iceman (film)

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man, who has claimed of killing over a hundred victims.

The cast gives good performances. Michael Shannon brings gravitas to the Iceman. It’s impressive how much life he’s breathed into a role that is so oblique and intimidating. The audience never really knows what is going on inside his head, but a threatening violence is communicated underneath his dead calm demeanor. It’s an engaging scary performance. Winona Ryder is good in the role of Kuklinski’s wife Deborah but the potential of the role isn’t explored to the fullest. The real-life Kuklinski did hit his wife and broke her nose several times. Unfortunately for Ryder, it is not explored in the film. Kuklinski’s wife in the film suspects something is wrong but is scared to pry, which is contrary to her real-life counterpart had no idea what was going on at all. This was all probably changed to create more character likability for Kuklinski, more on that later. Chris Evans gets to transform and do some character acting as the Iceman’s assassin partner Mr. Freezy. Evan seems to be reveling in this part, it’s probably a breath of fresh air from having doing the recent Marvel films. James Franco also shows up in a fun cameo role.

The story, however, fails to rise above the sum of its parts. One particular aspect of dramatic filmmaking is for the story to be compelling, the audience generally has to empathize and root for its protagonist. It’s hard to feel that for Richard Kuklinksi because he is fully aware of his actions. Kuklinksi was an effective killer from his lack of compassion for people. He gave zero thought to murder and that’s what made him scary. But director Ariel Vromen tries to insert the idea that Kuklinski had empathy and struggled with balancing his antisocial behavior with the safety of his family. This is only touched upon and never fully explored. But perhaps there was nothing behind the real Iceman’s psychosis, maybe he just did not have empathy. The truth is Vromen doesn’t know more than we do and the film is only working on pure speculation. . So it is soft pedaling solely for dramatic purposes, Vromen should have just taken narrative liberties and just fully presented his own take of what happened.

Perhaps it’s not even Vromen’s fault, dramatic film was probably not the proper format for this story. I recommend everybody see the 1992 HBO documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer. Watching Richard Kuklinski recount his own story was a much more compelling and shocking experience. The Iceman, by comparison, seems relatively watered down and this isn’t a story that should be toned down.

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

Nick Fury, director of the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to form a team that must stop Thor’s brother Loki from enslaving the human race.

It’s here, finally. The movie that Marvel really wanted to make and arguably the film every fan really wanted to see, anyways. It really started to test my patience while I was watching Captain America: The First Avenger. It wasn’t that it was a bad movie, but it’s more or less of the same thing and I wanted to see these Marvel movies go somewhere else. The good news? The Avengers go somewhere else with it and it works!

The major sell of The Avengers are the characters themselves and that’s what the story is mainly about. In Joss Whedon’s own words, there is no reason for all these heroes to share a movie. After all, if I had superpowers and had the ability to solve my own problems, why would I work with another dude? Or take orders from somebody that’s supposedly weaker than you?

Whedon accomplishes this with a lot of discipline and balance. For example, the alien army that Loki employs to take over the Earth with are underdeveloped and their motivations are quite simplistic, but it works because it acts only as an extension of the heroes’ conflict. They’re fighting these aliens not because the monsters necessarily have a direct beef with our heroes, rather they just exist as an idea to push them to working together as a team. It is functioning quite like a musical in that aspect. Conflicts are physicalized in the form of fights (everybody fights with everybody at some point like a fighting game), comedic verbal banter and things are kept light and bounce along smoothly. Personally I found myself enjoying the banter more. Yes, The Avengers was a lot more funnier than I expected.

It was fun anticipating and seeing how each character interacted with each other, very much like how you might anticipate different friends will interact with each other at your birthday party. Like in 2009’s Star Trek, I appreciated that each member had a individual specific contribution to the team.

People tend to argue about how filmmakers interpret the Hulk in the past. I do like the Ang Lee version because Lee attempted to bring a genuine pathos to The Hulk that seemed unpopular with the masses. The issue I actually have with the Hulk is that his character never seemed heroic to me because he is not in control of his own actions once Bruce Banner is in the Hulk state. It’s just random carnage and it happens that he’s a hero because he does good, albeit accidentally. Suffice to say, they solve that in this movie.

As for the switch with Mark Ruffalo, fans will perpetually argue over which actor played the best interpretation of the Hulk. I personally do not see an actor-specific interpretation. It seemed like Ruffalo is playing the continuation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk after the events of The Incredible Hulk (what Edward Norton would have played had he stayed in the role). This is a less conflicted Bruce Banner who’s made peace with who he is and is in better control. I do not know why in the past the actors who have played Bruce Banner did not get to play The Hulk on motion capture, I am glad that is over because the consistency really makes a huge difference. Ruffalo manages to be scary at times but it is ultimately drowned out by the film’s light tone. The ever-present humor does work against the story at times because I would have liked a few darker moments in the film. Suffice to say, Ruffalo makes the role his own.

I can see from a writer’s standpoint how Captain America is a challenging character to tackle. There is no real darkness within him and he always does the right thing. So how do you make that engaging? The story of The Avengers was originally going to be based from Captain America’s point of view and there was a whole subplot about him trying to reconnect with the modern world. I’m glad that was cut out (this is fully packed as it is). All those scenes can totally be in Captain America 2. Even stripping his storyline away, they do manage retain Steve Roger’s charm in The Avengers. The charm of Captain America are not his powers; the character represents the human limit and how human will and heart can push someone to do great things. He is a competent superhero in his own world and story, but his powers do not mean much standing next to Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man or even the alien army. They do highlight this fact in the battle scenes. There were many instances where I was thinking, “Wow, Captain America can totally die right now.” The humanity and obvious vulnerability of the character engaged me and it stood out as he starts leading the Avengers. It made me think about how poorly Cyclops was handled in the X-men movies. Captain America was the stand-out character for me.

The Hawkeye and Black Widow story is serviceable and it only gives them enough motivation for the duration of this installment, which really is just giving them an excuse to exist and kick ass in the story. It doesn’t really develop them that much in my opinion, I’m not complaining but it didn’t really do much for me either. They are not interesting enough to have their own movies.

Robert Downey Jr. has really settled into his Tony Stark role and gets all the zingers, as expected. I liked that his character is consistent with the end of Iron Man 2. They give him a small arc in The Avengers and I rather liked that. He is comparatively less of an ass and more likable than in Iron Man 2. Shane Black is doing Iron Man 3, sign me up baby!

I like Chris Hemsworth as Thor, he plays the role with the right combination of masculinity and vulnerability. Thor carries the guilt of bringing a new threat to Earth while trying to stop his brother’s madness without killing him. The film presents all this but it seems like there’s a lot more untapped drama that is not explored. We only get a very serious side of Thor compared to the last installment because the characters like Jane or Darcy that bring out other sides of Thor are not present. I do look forward to seeing if there are more Thor scenes in the 30-minutes of cut footage.

Tom Hiddleston oozes charisma as Loki. Honestly at times I found myself rooting for Loki to win. It’s important that people see Thor to understand his motivations. I wonder if fresh viewers will miss Loki’s complex characterization and magnetism. He’s magnetic as hell and steals the show.

The set pieces are great and should satisfy any comic book fan. We get every superhero match up possible without hindering the story. The end set piece is reminiscent of the finale in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I do wonder if Michael Bay is at home screaming, ripping his hair out right now. The Avengers puts his Transformers films to shame and shows how a similar finale can be truly exciting by developing characters and a story.

So the problems? My biggest criticism of The Avengers is probably that it was overhyped. Even with actively avoiding all the promotional clips and featurettes online, I dangerously felt the presence of the movie before actually seeing it. There’s enough clips of the movie currently available online right now for anybody to piece together the entire story. It was a real fight to go in with a fresh clean mind. There’s a moment at the very end of the finale that was ruined by a shot that was shown in the trailer and I would have preferred if they just left that one shot out because the pre-knowledge ruined the tension of the scene. If it was left out, it would have been more tense wondering if the movie would have just ended on a dark cliffhanger with a character possibly being dead.

It’s imperative that I warn anybody who has yet to see the movie: do not see this movie in 3D. The light loss was problematic (duh!) and I found it very difficult to follow the action scenes (to it’s own credit, they were not edited in a choppy fashion) or anything indoors or at night. Please do your part and pay to see it in 2D and let 3D die. And also, there are 2 end credits scenes, stay till the very end.

What can I say? Marvel has made an awesome achievement with The Avengers and it only seems natural to ponder how Marvel will escalate things for the future. For my money, it seems superfluous to have to go through another set of sequels with each individual hero before an Avengers 2: Still Avenging. Let’s just get to it!