Jun 25, 2014


The long awaited first foray of director's Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder) into big budget filmmaking is here, and it is a rather interesting mixed bag. That Bong is gifted is clearly in evidence in this adaptation of a French graphic novel that depicts a post-apocalyptic Earth where the sole remaining humans are stuck in a very long train that is circling the globe. It is 2031 and because of our plundering of the environment, the Earth has been frozen and nothing can survive outside the train. This train is basically a spot-on metaphor for the difference between coach and first class in current commercial aviation and, more essentially, for the way we live now, with the poors stuck all the way in the back in dire oppression, while the one percent rides in comfort and luxury in the front, controlling everything and sharing nothing. In between, there are cars of armed goons protecting the wealthy from the hoi polloi. There are other fun details in the other cars that I won't disclose here, but as a metaphor, it is perfect for what goes on today. The downtrodden in the back want to get to the front. The one percent in the front will do anything in their power to keep them in the back. Life on Earth.
As fanboy action movies go, this is a darker tale than usual, and there are a couple of twists at the end that are anathema to the heroic tropes that are a staple of the genre. But, and this is a very big but, although the enormous skill and imagination of Bong are in full force, what made him such an exciting writer-director is missing in this film. I remember seeing The Host and being totally exhilarated by his mischievousness. At first it wasn't clear what exactly we were witnessing. A cheesy monster film with a giant fish that looked like a mean version of Charlie the Tuna, The Host was also a hilarious Korean social satire. The protagonists were a bunch of losers, and Bong's balancing act between mischief and real terror was a fresh, original marvel to behold. Mother, a darkly funny, harrowing movie about a monster mom, was also sharply satirical and critical of Korean society, full of mordant detail. This incisive playfulness, his assured handling of several dissonant tones is what makes Bong one of the best directors working today, yet his mischievousness is sadly missing from this film.
It is not altogether gone, harnessed by some mordant visuals, and in particular by  the amazing Tilda Swinton, who plays Mason, the envoy between Mr. Wilford, the owner of the train, and the masses. She is spectacular, and seems to be the only actor who is truly alive for the first half of the film. She brings her considerable chops to portray the sum of all ass-kissing bureaucrats, stern but morally dubious headmasters, the sum of all of those who do the dirty work for the more powerful. She is over the top, and hilarious. At times I thought she was channeling Emma Thompson at her most prissy, at times she reminded me of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, but at the Q&A after the film, Bong revealed that Swinton was channeling Margaret Thatcher. So that's who that was! Tilda Swinton rules, bless her irreverent, mirthful soul.
Because Snowpiercer takes place in a sci-fi world (the production design and special effects are awesome) a lot of the day to day human observation in which Bong excels is sacrificed in the name of keeping the giant machinery of the metaphor rolling. There are enormous holes in the story (screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson). A lot of it doesn't make sense. I never understood why the rich needed the poor, and that is just one of many headscratchers. To Bong's credit, I was able to suspend my disbelief because of the forward momentum of the story, and because he unleashes wonderful actors like little bonbons, one after the other.
I suspect that the exigencies of marketing may have played a role in the script. There are some cringe worthy lines from Curtis, the hero (Chris Evans, doing his best and still managing to be uninteresting) about his inability to be a leader. He repeats them over and over, and we finally learn why he thinks he cannot lead (another tired antihero trope that needs to be put out to pasture) in a convoluted speech at the end where he tells us everything that happened to him in the past. I cannot help but think this sounds like something added after focus groups. The result is that we don't care, because we didn't see it. Now, we don't necessarily need to see it, as it is a gruesome tale, but when the biggest twists are in the form of exposition at the end, the revelations sink as we never once saw any tension, or ambiguity at the beginning that may startle us emotionally. Tragic things happen, but they don't really connect, perhaps because the characters exist to service the concept, and as hard as the actors work, it's hard to care for them. Actors like Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell are excellent, but are swallowed by the enormity of the mayhem and the lack of clarity in the story. Ironically, the giant engine of the plot seems to be as indifferent to the plight and nature of the characters as the giant engine of the train. This movie seems devoid of real emotion.
There are long, sharply staged, extremely violent, cartoonish fight sequences, but I was not truly excited and amazed until the point in which the rebels finally burst into business class, so to speak. That is the really fun part. It is visually stunning and it deploys more of Bong's sense of humor. But in general, the exhilaration comes more from the set decor and the special effects rather than from keenly observed truths. Sadly, many potentially rich nuances of the characters' experience fall by the wayside.
This is a very ambitious movie, and as action movies go, far less inane and hypocritical than average, with a great subversive metaphor and a wonderfully ambivalent ending that somehow manage to survive an ideologically confusing exposition. I'd still rather get my kicks from a cheesy giant fish, a family of losers, a poisonous mother, or a hapless policeman, those fascinating people in Bong's down-to-Earth universe, than from high concept bells and whistles.

Jun 22, 2014

Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski brings David Ives' hit play to the screen. The movie stars Polanski's doppelganger Mathieu Amalric, as Thomas, a playwright who is auditioning actresses, and his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, as Vanda, a ditzy actress who walks in from the rain and then turns out to be a human bag of tricks, and then some.
The playwright and the actress weave in and out of the text of the play they are working with, something called Venus in Fur, which is an adaptation of a novel by Sacher-Masoch, the guy who lent his last name to masochism. So we are watching a movie, adapted from a play that has a play in it that is adapted from a novel.
Visually, Polanski helps the Chinese boxes conceit by making it clear we are entering a symbolic theater. The opening scene is a lovely tracking shot in a stormy night in a Parisian boulevard that suddenly veers into a little theater, where several doors open (like in the opening credits of Get Smart) until we reach Thomas, who is on the phone berating all the idiot actresses he has auditioned so far. In comes this Vanda, acting like a ditz, but somehow convincing him to let her read. She is vulgar and seemingly out of her depth, and completely wrong for the role of a repressed 19th century woman, but when she reads the lines, she transforms into the character, who also happens to be named Vanda.
Emmanuelle Seigner is a formidable beauty, but she is not the actress that the role requires. She is entertaining, but lacks nuance. And it pains me to say this, but this is an instance where the role is better suited to a younger woman. Perhaps a better actress (say a Juliette Binoche) would better convey that mercurial quality of Vanda's that seems forced in Seigner.
Amalric, however, is a great actor, and he is fantastic as this man who thinks he calls the shots and whom this mysterious woman eventually unravels.
When I saw the very entertaining play on Broadway, I did not quite understand what the point was. The woman who starts as a ditz ends up being far smarter, and she needs to deploy all her female arsenal of tricks to get where she wants to, from coyness, playing stupid, being ravishingly beautiful, turning out to be extremely smart, etc, but to what end? To effect some sort of gender revenge on the hapless guy? Is that it? Polanski helps clarify the metaphor by going symbolic full force, something that he can do with cinematic tools. The same could have happened onstage, change the lighting, make her final assault a coup de theatre, but it didn't and it was confusing. Here it is clearer, although I'm not sure, if I understand this play correctly, that women want to emasculate men, even if they have good reason sometimes.
This is a small movie with two actors on a stage, but thanks to Polanski's command of his craft, it does not feel like filmed theater. It feels like a movie and it makes the Broadway staging seem poor and pedestrian in comparison. It is gorgeously framed and cut, it flows beautifully.  When the actors mime pretending to use props, Polanski adds the sound effects of a spoon tinkling against an invisible cup or the swoosh of a whip, and it works like magic. This gives an added layer to the play within the play, to the idea that theater is both magical and it is a game. Polanski really knows what to do with the language and the tools of cinema. This is why I love him.
Too bad that the bombastic score by Alexandre Desplat, a mix of carnival and Greek music, unbalances the subtlety of Polanski's visual approach. The end also builds into the almost grotesque. Of course, these choices are all Polanski's. His biggest choice is to have decided to make this particular story of gender war into a film. It is not a coincidence that Thomas has a last name that rhymes with Polanski, that Amalric looks like him and that Vanda is played by his actual wife. Polanski has always had a macabre sense of humor and, given his notorious past, I'm still trying to figure out what he is trying to say with this one. In a scene where Vanda protests that the play is abusive towards women, Thomas is outraged, finally claiming that not everything is abuse and that things are complicated. Indeed.

Jun 21, 2014

Obvious Child

This quietly radical romantic comedy by Gillian Robespierre presents the story of Donna Stern, a struggling stand up comedian (the wonderful Jenny Slate), who gets pregnant in a night of drunken passion. She decides to get an abortion. Because she is a comedian, she makes jokes about the most private and painful areas of her life, and abortion is included. This does not mean that she is not devastated and consumed with worry by the news, but it is not a question of morality. It is her body, her future, her reality, her choice. Period. This is what is radical: there is no judgment. There is no preaching, one way or another. She made a stupid mistake and now she has to deal with the consequences, but in a state, like New York, where abortion is safe and available to women, she doesn't have to deal with the added cruelty of abortion being illegal. A quietly powerful scene at the clinic, where she is reminded of her options, serves to remind her and us that no one takes this decision lightly.
The trailer for this movie makes it look much less funny than it is. Robespierre manages to balance the saltiness of Donna's comedy with great empathy for her plight and a charming, sweet streak of romance. The characters are endearing and the cast is uniformly wonderful. This comedy flows organically as a fully developed story, instead of a series of disconnected set pieces, and this is very welcome. Obvious Child is a mature, grounded, poignant and funny comedy about abortion, which is no mean feat.