Sunday, July 20, 2014

Flight Improvement: PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE


A professional racer is told by his doctor to take it easy. Looking to put his new free time to good use, he agrees to help his tiny hometown by leaving home and getting his fire rescue certification. He ends up spending the summer at a mountaintop resort, finding new firefighter friends and getting his training in while helping them prep for forest fire season. It’s a sweet, simple, predictable little story with safe, easy lessons about being selfless, helping others while being true to yourself and other gently affirming stuff. I sort of enjoyed it, at least whenever I could half-forget that all of the characters were planes.

This is Planes: Fire & Rescue, a sequel to last year’s Planes, a spin-off of Pixar’s Cars movies. That pretty dumb and awfully flimsy movie was produced by DisneyToon, Disney’s direct-to-video arm, but got promoted to a theatrical release, presumably because someone at the studio thought it was good enough to do so. Or maybe there was a blank spot on the schedule that had to be filled quickly and cheaply. Either way, there it was, a bland regurgitation of Cars plot points and cheaply animated pap. Families bought tickets. Now it’s eleven months later and we have a sequel.

Maybe because director Roberts Gannaway and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard knew they were aiming for the big screen from the beginning, the movie has a wider scope, rather lovely and detailed backgrounds, and that aforementioned predictable-but-likable story. The forest is lush and leafy, fires ripping through with convincingly rendered snap and flicker bleeding ominous reds and oranges through the picturesque greens and browns of the secluded resort area. The story about a group of professionals taking a newbie under their wing and teaching him the ropes is made up of stock parts, but plays reasonably well. The problem, and it’s kind of a big one, is the planes.

I liked the Cars movies. They had a certain charm and moved fast enough to outrace logical questions about how a world in which all living things are vehicles operates in any way. Sure, I idly wondered about questions like, “where do baby cars come from?” But the movies moved quickly, had Pixar’s trademark visual wit and emotional intelligence, and just plain knew not to steer the plot directly into areas that would immediately confront the core nonsense of the fantasy world’s workings. Not so Planes, which operated at a cheaper, thinner level, but worst of all foregrounded the nonsense. That’s a pattern that continues with Fire & Rescue.

It’s a movie that spends more time than necessary (that is to say, any at all) focusing on the planes’ bodies. A major plot point is a plane who is told he has a failing gearbox that can’t be replaced because “the factory discontinued the parts.” What!? You mean to tell me in this world of anthropomorphized vehicles there is a factory that can declare a death sentence for a whole type of being (species? product line?) by declaring them obsolete?  How horrible! At one point the camera zooms into the plane’s inner workings and watches as gears turn and spark. I don’t want to think about this! Throughout we get cutaways to dashboard gauges and knobs. Why are they there? Who is looking at them?

The movie’s obsession with the planes’ mechanical processes reveals only the failure to imagine the fictional world in any detail beyond the surface jokiness. It’s simply unworkable. What does work on some modestly engaging level is the story, which would be a humble charmer if someone were to rewrite it to star human beings. Whenever I could forget that Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) and his new firefighting pals (voices of Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, Wes Studi, Regina King, and more) were planes, it has a mildly diverting kid-friendly flow. The fire and rescue of the title is treated seriously enough to come with a dedication to real firefighters. That’s nice. So is the crackling danger that the planes fly through in visually appealing ways.

What’s not so nice are the nagging implausibilities and backfiring wit. I don’t want to think about a small-town bar named “Honkers” where a hybrid rebuffs a pickup truck’s pick-up line. Or an elderly fire truck voiced by Hal Holbrook complaining about his “rusty, blistered bumper.” Or a pair of elderly RVs who over-share that they “wore down their [tire] treads on their honeymoon…with all that driving.” Or a helicopter who is a broad offensive Native American stereotype who speaks in a pantomime of Native sayings.

Why this simple little kids’ movie insists on playing around in its most distracting, baffling corners while poking along at a pace that makes sure we have plenty of time to ponder its nonsense is beyond me. It’s not even close to even the worst of either Cars, but at least it’s an improvement over its immediate predecessor. Fire & Rescue is totally watchable, with better animation, design, characters, and story, and with fewer lame jokes. It’s not so bad, pleasant enough, but fundamentally preposterous.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Devils' Night: THE PURGE: ANARCHY


The Purge was a dumb movie, mostly for the way it took an ingeniously preposterous premise and made it a total bore. It imagined a near-future America where crime rates are low because of an annual “Purge Night” in which all crime is legal. (“Including murder,” the warnings hilariously remind.) With such a provocative smartly stupid premise, it was a shame that the movie became a dim home invasion thriller that thoroughly squandered an idea so gloriously pulpy. At least the new sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, has the wherewithal to explore its concept in some livewire ways, breaking out of its predecessor’s single-location stinginess to watch a Purge Night unfold across an entire city. This movie colors in details of The Purge, sketching a picture of a self-righteously judgmental society glorifying the rich, ignoring the poor, and worshiping at the twin altars of greed and guns. (Sound familiar?) The first Purge was a bungled sociological thought experiment, but the second doubles down on its social commentary, bluntly hammering out bloody metaphors. The execution is still fairly junky, but it steps past the inherent silliness of its premise and finds some timely resonances.

Returning writer-director James DeMonaco’s script finds a handful of disparate characters caught outside when Purge Night begins. There’s a struggling waitress (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zoë Soul) who are forced out of their apartment in the projects. There’s a young married couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car breaks down, leaving them stranded. Those four are sympathetic audience surrogates who were planning on hunkering down and waiting out the night peacefully. But then there’s a man (Frank Grillo, with perfect hoarse voice and steely determination) who strapped on his bulletproof vest, loaded his guns, and drove out into the night with the specific purpose of murdering one individual. Hey, why not get a revenge killing out of the way while it’s legal, right? His conscience gets the better of him and he ends up helping our stuck characters. They’re not the most complex of characters, but the simplicity of their goals – to stay alive – carries them through.

We cross the city with a feeling of danger and distress, the cheap dark digital cinematography blearily suggesting an ominous sense of citywide unrest. We see how robbery and rape is just as likely as murder, with packs of men (no women) swaggering around with bats, machetes, machine guns, flamethrowers, and dogs, eager to partake in their right to a night of mayhem. Some ride motorcycles, others drive big white murder vans, while still others roll up firing automatic weapons out of the backs of modified semis. Those Purging wear spooky masks, move menacingly, and perpetuate a feeling of frayed societal bonds at every step. We hear gunfire in the distance. It feels like an unusually intimidating Halloween party crossed with a riot. The chaos implied around every corner as our protagonists try to avoid running afoul of these nasty gangs is claustrophobic, but the variety of dangers and locations serves the concept far better than hunkering down in one place.

What works best about the film is the way it tightens the tension around its characters, even as it works to expand upon the world of The Purge. It uses the opportunity to make a biting critique of our own society’s bloodlust and staggering inequality by taking it to extreme and absurd ends. We get glimpses of a justifiably angry viral video star (Michael K. Williams) agitating for an end to The Purge, arguing that it disproportionately impacts the poorest in society. Late in the film we see a gaggle of rich white folks having themselves a black-tie dinner party, the entertainment being the poor people they drag in off the street and murder.

Although Anarchy is better at activating the promise of its premise, the execution is still wildly inconsistent. The dialogue is flat and clunky, as if it has been awkwardly translated, and conversations have a tendency to go sideways and circular, returning to the same ground over and over. It’s not fun to look at most of the time. It’s dimly shot and indifferently framed. The staging is choppy, edited around jolts without much sense of rhythm or style. Gunfire grows repetitive as stalking and hiding sequences grow rote. You flee from one band of attackers, you’ve fled from them all. A tighter script and direction that can more adeptly get off on the insanity while still condemning it (think prime Verhoeven) would be all this series needs to really satisfy. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

And yet, despite all of my reservations, The Purge: Anarchy works on a fundamental sloppy downbeat B-movie level. The film engages with its concept far more successfully than it engaged me. But the plot is simplicity itself – the characters just want to survive the night – moving quickly and confidently. It has a couple of big ideas, lots of bloodshed, and a concept that’s some kind of dumb genius. The Purge itself makes little sense in theory or in practice, but as a brutal reflection of our modern ills, it resonates.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

One Hit Wonder: BEGIN AGAIN


Late in Begin Again, a songwriter talks to her rock star ex-boyfriend and boils down the trouble with their failed relationship to a matter of production on a track off of his debut album. She disappointedly tells him that he’s turned what she wrote as a simple ballad into an overproduced piece of arena rock. Her song, she says, has been “buried in the mix.” She may as well be talking about the movie, which has at its core a small, sweet nugget of an idea and proceeds to thoroughly bury it under treacly artifice. It’s a movie about creative inspiration, about how the act of creating music helps its creators work through issues in their personal lives and find friendships and purpose through producing something beautiful to share with the world. Too bad, then, that a movie about the magic of creativity shows so little imagination.

To make matters worse, writer-director John Carney made a movie that did all of the above, that cut straight to the heart of the matter and moved people with its beautiful simplicity and great music. It was 2007’s Once, a Dublin street singer Brief Encounter, a lovely little bittersweet romantic musical. Its leads, musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, poured their hearts out into open performances that ache with pain and transcendence as their musically inclined characters form meaningful connections through song. They won a well-deserved Best Original Song Oscar for their efforts. It’s a movie that made a virtue out of its limited resources by creating deeply felt characters living simple lives made better by letting them become the fuel for their artistic endeavors.

Now here’s Carney’s Begin Again, which plays similar notes, but ends up with little worth listening to. There’s a shyly talented young singer/songwriter (Keira Knightley) who reluctantly performs a song in a New York dive bar at which her friend (James Corden) is playing a gig. An alcoholic record producer (Mark Ruffalo) freshly fired from his indie label hears her. He approaches her and demands to help her record an album. She eventually gives in. Since his former colleague (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) won’t bankroll the project, the two of them set out to recruit some session musicians willing to work for nothing and then find authenticity by recording her songs on the street – and in an alley, on top of a skyscraper, in the subway, and all manner of “real” New York locales. It’s a straightforward idea. The montages of the band coming together have a pleasant charge and the leads are charming. But the movie lets them down.

This simple concept is loaded up with emotional baggage straight out of the Hollywood melodrama bargain bin. Ruffalo has an ex-wife (Catherine Keener) who he still loves, and a distant teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who wears clingy shirts and tight short shorts because (as actually stated out loud in a movie in 2014) she needs a father figure more present and encouraging in her life. Knightley has that rocker ex (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) and a flashback charting their relationship. We also meet several flat, largely superfluous, side characters including a successful musician of some sort who is played by Cee Lo Green. You’d think he’d have a song or two, but no. He’s here for a scene and a half of exposition and that’s it. (I guess the movie can claim it has half of the judges from NBC’s singing competition The Voice.) There’s no sense that any of these characters have weight. They talk about their backstories and their feelings, but they don’t wear them. The cast is made up of fine actors (and Adam Levine). To the extent that it works at all – and it does, for a minute or two here and there – it’s because of them, but they can’t sell such thin material all on their own.

It’s shot with an earnest, up-tempo glossiness, and it’s watchably amiable. But the movie is simply unconvincing. There’s a scene in which two people listen to a song on headphones in the middle of a crowded nightclub. How could they possibly hear it? Later, a woman reads the back of a CD’s case while listening to the music on an iPod. Two industry professionals call Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra “guilty pleasures.” The dramatic resolution of the making-an-album plotline plays out as a credit cookie and is a self-flattering ode to the magical hit-making power of the Internet. These small, bungled details pile up and distract. But at least being so phony helps throw its sappy triteness into stark relief. The more it insists on the creative powers of its characters, the less awareness it shows. It’s a reductive sort of movie that claims to be about inspiration while having none of it.

At one point, a character tells Ruffalo, “this isn’t Jerry Maguire,” which only goes to remind the audience how skilled Cameron Crowe is at blending music and drama into something transcendent, a skill Carney had with Once but is lacking here. Still, the songs, written by Carney and collaborators, are mostly nice and inoffensive to the ear. The ensemble has chops (or fakes them well enough) and the songs are at worst the kind of pleasant guitar-and-piano fare you’d hear as background noise in a Starbucks. The least of the lyrics are overly stretching in a moody middle-schooler sort of way. A low-light: “Yesterday I saw a lion kiss a deer / Turn the page and maybe we’ll find a brand new ending / When we’re dancing in our tears.” Yeezus, that’s bad. At least the melodies and arrangements go down easy, and Knightley’s enough of a charmer to disguise those words on first listen. In such a flimsy dramedy, the songs are never more than welcome distraction to the grinding gears of plot mechanics. They’re just more missed opportunities in a film that proves lightning rarely strikes twice.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Apes Together Strong: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hits all the required big notes of a Hollywood spectacle. It also delivers what one would reasonably expect from a Planet of the Apes movie, up to and including a chimpanzee firing two guns while riding on a horse. And yet it’s not a mindless action spectacle because the filmmakers are interested in letting us understand its characters not only as pawns of plot or objects of allegory – though they are that – but as living, breathing beings. Like its predecessor, 2011’s surprisingly effective Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn finds rich avenues of exploration, turning imagery and metaphor from the 60’s and 70’s Apes into bigger, slicker, modern efforts that lose none of the soul. This is a franchise that has always been at its best when it uses its monkeys to reflect humanity back at itself. With its latest iteration, advanced digital wizardry lets us stare deeply into the eyes of an intelligent ape, see ourselves there, and confront what we find. It’s a film with action that’s thrilling and exciting, but mournful as well.

The smartly constructed screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver finds the good and bad in both man and ape. We see the groups as mirror images, tribes living in tenuous post-apocalyptic peace. In the ten years since research lab apes staged a revolt and fled into the forest outside San Francisco at the end of Rise, scientists inadvertently brought about a plague. Called the simian flu, the virus was an artificial concoction that decimated humans, leaving apes unharmed. Without knowledge of the other’s existence, man and ape live their lives on either side of the crumbling Golden Gate Bridge. In an early scene, apes gather around their leader. Later, humans do the same. Both sets of crowd noises a represented through similar walls of sound, murmuring exclamations that are more alike than not. When man and ape discover the other, there is fear, then suspicion tempered with curiosity. But each tribe has warmongerers who cannot see peaceful coexistence. We come to understand that violence will arrive through misunderstandings, egos, and fear.

First we spend time with the apes. The opening shot – after a hokey pre-title expositional montage – stares deep into the eyes of Caesar, the ape who led the rebellion and now leads his clan of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. The camera pulls back until we see a forest filled with apes. With a hand signal, they leap down on the attack. They’re hunting deer. In smooth, swooping shots we follow their deadly strategy. We see what they’re capable of. They take the kills back to their village, a visual marvel of rudimentary houses, public spaces (simian versions of a schoolroom, a town hall, a cafeteria), and carved logs set in a ring around the perimeter. As they interact we learn about their society. They communicate with each other through sign language, grunts, whoops, guttural broken English, and meaningful glances. We watch, subtitles our only guide. The workings of their society are intriguingly revealed through action and image. It’s fascinating, preserving their status as animals and shading in subtleties of characterization through magisterial silences.

It almost never looks silly. The effects work is remarkable, not just for bringing the fantasy to life in convincing ways but for the performances it helps shape. The monkeys are digital creations around performance capture data. Like last time, Caesar is created by Andy Serkis, who performed the grunting dialogue as well as movements down to smallest the twitch, and a team of talented technicians at WETA Digital. It’s a moving, complicated performance as nuanced as any fully human work, extraordinarily detailed even and especially in extreme close-up. All the apes are created this way, enlivened by a fine ensemble (Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer) who are transformed into believably soulful monkeys imbued with personality and emotion beyond what makeup or trained animals could supply. They are, in writing and acting, among the most memorable screen characters in recent memory, sympathetic and humane with multifaceted motivations and expressive faces. What stand out most vividly are their eyes, so alive and compelling you can see the gears of thought and feeling turning, giving them heavy emotional lifting in unforgiving close-ups. We know them as fully as any person on screen.

Caesar, a compassionate leader and caring father, meets his human counterpart in the man (Jason Clarke) who arrives in the forest looking to restart an old dam in order to restore power to the fledgling human camp living in a small section the crumbling, weedy, fortified ruins of San Francisco. He has his wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow. Once they discover the animals, they want to learn more about the apes and their culture, convinced these intelligent creatures will help if they hear them out. Caesar wants to keep the peace, but other apes agitate for war. The humans are weak. Why not kill now and never worry again? Other humans aren’t so kind, either. Back at their base, a leader (Gary Oldman) is stockpiling heavy weaponry. He wants to reclaim the dam by wiping the apes out. As characters, the people aren’t as deeply felt as their animal counterparts, but the strong ensemble brings complexity to what’s on the page. The strength of the writing is in its activating of the dread and desperation of its scenario as pieces slowly fall into place, as weapons and suspicions reach the inevitable.

In its broad strokes, the conflict is expected and the plot moves towards the typical summer blockbuster conflagration that grows tiresome. But director Matt Reeves (of other excellent efforts Cloverfield and Let Me In) has given us down time, quiet reflection, moral complications slowly developing. We’re not tired of action before we even get there. He thinks in shots and sequences, deploying his camera with patience where many of his contemporaries slap together chaos. Here he builds tension and empathy out of crisp staging and long master shots. How better to be overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds of apes emerging in the trees behind humans in the foreground? By the time the action sequences roar, he cuts for the impact of clarity, not the impact of shocks and sensations. He pans 360 degrees with a tank’s turret as its driver changes from human to ape, foreground struggle reflected in the background that sweeps across the entire conflict. He watches as groups of combatants swarm over rooftops. He finds memorable moments: gunfire lighting flashes in the darkness; a kind character dropped to his death out of frame; a tight close-up of a whispered warning.

Reeves can’t get around the ultimate wearying effect of the typical blockbuster climax, but action is all the more impactful for being rooted in flesh and blood.  Digital beings and stock characters alike are invested with humanity. Every violent action has weight, consequences that matter. It’s a film that doesn’t want to see anyone hurt, certainly not the main sympathetic characters, but even villains of both human and animal variety who remain stubbornly humanized individuals. They do bad things for what they think are good reasons, reasons we can understand. Humans should be scared of apes. The animals are strong, resourceful, adaptable. The apes should be scared of humans. They have guns. This is a gripping sci-fi adventure that expresses not shoot-‘em-up militarism, but regret that the worst of man and ape brings conflict to the fore. It slowly brings two worlds to crisis and grows sad as the prospect of peace dwindles. It makes for a multipurpose allegory, applicable to any conflict with two intractable, yet similar, sides. Peace is close, yet, with great sadness, war is closer.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Follow the Echo, Echo: EARTH TO ECHO


The dopily derivative Earth to Echo is a plucky kids’ sci-fi adventure that arrives mediated through layers of visual and cultural clutter. It’s a found footage movie that finds its 13-year-old characters constantly filming themselves. We get angles from a camcorder, spy glasses, GoPro, and iPhones while the film juggles images from webchats, YouTube videos, screenshots, GPS, monitors, Google Maps, and fuzzy digitized alien POVs. Sometimes it’s supposed to be a video cut together after the fact by our main characters, but as is usually the case with these kinds of movies, the visual approach is scattershot. Just once I’d like to see a found footage movie that’s actually visually incomprehensible without carefully framed shots that catch the bulk of the information we need in any given scene while looking like an accident. Given the age of the protagonists here, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s camerawork’s shiny, professional amateurism is the motion picture equivalent of the backwards “R” in the Toys"R"Us logo. We get the shorthand, but we also get the idea no kid would make such perfect errors.

In this particular found footage movie, we follow three tween boys, a camera-loving average guy (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a shy nerd (Reese Hartwig), and a moody foster kid (Teo Halm). Best friends, they’re sad their suburban Nevada neighborhood is set to be demolished to make way for a new highway. They decide to have one last night of fun before moving separate ways. It just so happens they’ve been receiving strange map-like signals on their phones and decide to fake a sleepover – the old tell-each-parent-they’re-staying-somewhere-else trick – and head out into the desert to follow the directions. Now, I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to receiving mysterious, unknowable maps on my phone would not be to follow them. But I digress.

Having seen dozens of found footage horror movies, the opening scenes evoke some Pavlovian horror anticipation, but the kids merely discover a bleeping alien robot thing that looks like a small, twee version of the clockwork owl from Clash of the Titans. It communicates only by beeping, a process they quickly use to figure out that the little guy needs to find enough spare parts to cobble together a signal to open his missing spaceship and go home. The rest of the movie takes place during this one crazy night as the three boys, plus a token girl (Ella Wahlestedt) they pick up along the way, sneak around the suburbs on a scavenger hunt for their silent alien buddy. They spend their time helping him plan his planetary escape while hiding him from creepy pseudo-governmental forces led by an untrustworthy construction foreman (Jason Gray-Stanford).

This debut feature for writer Henry Gayden and director Dave Green plays like an updated, first-person, social media and smart phone-saturated version of all those 80’s kids’ adventures (like Explorers or Flight of the Navigator) where kids roamed free and got into small, contained sci-fi adventures. I suppose it’s the answer for anyone who ever wanted to watch E.T. and Stand by Me at the same time without having to worry about watching a great movie.  But it’s all done so earnestly that it can’t help but be effective at conveying friendship in the face of very early adolescent uncertainty. It’s not so much about the alien, which provides a B-movie hook, but rather in the kids’ bonding.

When the movie casually pokes at the sense of genuine care and friendship these kids have, it works pretty well. The young performers have a fun rapport that’s convincing, and shyness around the sudden introduction of The Girl that feels spot on. She’s quickly made a part of the team, given some hasty characterization, and barely becomes a source of romantic tension, so at least there’s that. The four kids seem like real kids, testing the limits of childhood vocabulary and expression (one kid awkwardly blurts out that he thinks “mannequins are hot, okay?”) while fumbling with new feelings, trying to make sense of the encroaching adult world. Older brothers, security guards, bar patrons, and parents are all the same kind of mystery here. No wonder the alien’s more understandable to them.

The core relationships aren’t enough to overcome the cheesy writing and slapdash style. There’s so much schmaltz and shaky-cam placed on top of it that it’s sometimes hard to care. I certainly couldn’t ever really get invested in the alien or his plight. His design is generic and his personality is nonexistent. When we get our big moment of tearful love for the little guy, I wasn’t feeling it. Since that’s the main thrust of the narrative, it’s a problem. The sloppy, inconsistent, unpredictable visual style certainly doesn’t help matters. There are some neat special effects and a small bit of charm to the premise, but it’s nothing too involving or especially interesting. Still, it’s sweet and sincere enough, and the leads are likeable enough, that it wouldn’t surprise me if kids who see it now will grow up with outsized affection for it all the same.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Crazy Train: SNOWPIERCER


Snowpiercer is a smorgasbord of sci-fi ideas and images. The plot is simple, but its world of pulpy imagery and thoughts are not. The thrilling film imagines a future in which the Earth has frozen over. International efforts to combat global warming were too much, too late. They backfired, covering the world in a thick, uninhabitable winter. Seventeen years later, several hundred survivors, all that remains of humanity, live in a futuristic, heavily armored, self-sustaining, climate-controlled train a billionaire built, the lengthy locomotive endlessly circling its tracks. Brutal guards carefully maintain order inside. The billionaire industrialist who ordered the train and the tracks built sits at the controls. The rich get to live in luxury in the front cars, mindlessly worshiping his capitalist impulse. They paid for their spots. The poor are huddled in squalid conditions in the caboose. They were lucky to get on board in the first place. Perpetual poverty is the price they pay. It is a blunt force allegory primed to explode.

Equal parts pleasantly preposterous and wickedly intriguing, the film is the rare sci-fi film that starts fascinating and maintains that level of interest throughout, getting better, richer, and more surprising as it goes along. It hurtles forward with imagination and momentum. We meet a reluctant hero (Chris Evans), a tortured back-of-the-train citizen who is fomenting a revolt. Gathering allies (a fine international cast including John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-Ho, and Ko Ah-Sung), the revolution smashes forward, aiming for the engine room at the very front of the train. The movie fights its way forward with them, car after car, each serving a different function in the train’s ecosystem. The set design and action choreography changing with each car – a food factory, a garden, a classroom, a prison – bounces nicely off the consistent claustrophobic dimensions that remain the same. Dumped into the moving vehicle with scant background, we learn more about how this society operates, who lives there, and why they’re in this mess as we storm through.

Along the way, we meet some fabulous villains, pawns of the train’s corporate dictator and founder. The unseen force that is the head of the train radiates backwards through his soldiers and his minions. (Eventually, we see him, and he does not disappoint, but to spoil who plays him and what he’s like would rob you of a pleasant surprise.) Most memorable is the sniveling, condescending, ice-cold officer (an nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) who coos over the aristocratic excess and luxurious hoarding of the rich and snarls with glee at the conditions of the poor. As heroes and villains are slowly fleshed in and the full splendor and horror of the train is bit by bit revealed, the movie takes on darker, more powerful emotional underpinnings to its more intellectual allegorical force.

Shot with dark humor and rattling with gushes of artfully applied blood, this is an exciting, impactful sci-fi actioner that sleekly tracks forward, finding twists and complications every step of the way. The actors give tough, memorable genre performances, types done right. The camera finds cutting away as valuable as lingering on chaos. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo's mix of shooting styles finds deliberate lateral moves as tense as jangly hand-held work. Ondrej Nekvasil and Stefan Kovacik's production design creates an immersive world, enveloping and all-consuming in its detail. Each new car is a revelation. From the prisoners kept in massive metal drawers, to the creepy-crawly secret of the underclass’ protein rations, to the Gilliam-esque warped environments of the rich and comfortable, this is a film of wonderfully thought-through spaces on which the stage is set for resonant, expressive, satisfying conflict.

Snowpiercer represents the modern economics of global film production at its finest. It’s a multinational ensemble working with Bong Joon-ho, a great South Korean director, filming in Prague and creating visual effects in London and Vancouver, an English-language adaptation of a 1980’s French comic. The final product is fantastic international multicultural synthesis, bigger and more idiosyncratic than most of what makes it to movie screens. It’s immensely satisfying to sink into a film so intricately designed and find images and ideas at once familiar and foreign. Bong Joon-ho, with his previous off-kilter genre efforts like 2006’s creature feature The Host and 2009’s murder mystery Mother, showcased his great eye for striking pulp visions. Here, with moments from a man punished by having his arm stuck out an exterior hatch and frozen off to a fight in total darkness between resourceful rioters and thugs with hatchets and night-vision goggles, he's made a film with a new jolt of surprise and imagination behind every doorway.

As we smash forward with righteous fury on the heels of the uprising, the screenplay by Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson raises interesting questions amidst hugely entertaining excitement. Is it best to stay quiet and know your place in what is clearly a corrupt system, hoping for marginal improvement? Or is it better to blow it all up and start again? Snowpiercer is actually interested in interrogating these questions rather than using them as tantalizing flavoring for its premise and then discarding them once the action starts. It’s part of the fun. This is a rich experience, tremendously entertaining, funny, sad, and thrilling, with plenty of personality that doesn't sacrifice thoughts for thrills or vice versa. It’s one of the most involving and compelling science fiction films in recent memory, a great ride that moves and moves.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Machine That Generates Empathy: LIFE ITSELF


The temptation in writing a review of Life Itself, a biographical documentary about legendary film critic Roger Ebert, is to make it about one’s personal feelings for him. For 45 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer appeared in print for the Chicago Sun-Times reviewing as many films as humanly possible week after week. For nearly as long, thanks to various movie review programs he co-hosted with Gene Siskel, he was a household name. When he died last April at the age of 70 after a long, public struggle with cancer, I wrote, “After years of reading him, I felt like I knew him. He’s the reason I wanted to express my thoughts about film in writing in the first place. When news arrived today of his passing, I felt like I had lost a friend. He’s the most important person in my life that I never met. All of us who love films and want to write and respond to them are in his debt.”

So of course this movie was an emotional experience for me. It’s a feature-length remembrance of a person whose work meant much to many. How wonderful to hear his story, hear others share their memories, see old clips of his passion and wit. However, Ebert famously said that a film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Luckily, in the case of the movie about him, the how is filmmaking from Steve James. It’s fitting that an iconic Chicagoan and a lion of criticism would have his life story told by Chicago’s leading documentarian. From 1994’s Hoop Dreams, the epic story of two inner-city basketball-playing boys, to 2011’s The Interrupters, following a violence-prevention organization, James has a keen eye for humanizing detail, a virtue Ebert often championed.

Those earlier films are all present tense verite, but Life Itself rests on archival footage of which, as a television personality, Ebert left plenty. There’s also voice over from a sound-alike (Stephen Stanton, uncanny) who reads excerpts from reviews and Ebert’s memoir of the same name. Through his own words, Ebert enlivens the film with his gregarious presence and spirited prose. We hear about his childhood, his early successes, his cult classic screenplay, his struggles with alcohol, his intense brotherly rivalry with Siskel, and his marriage (‘til death do they part) to Chaz Ebert. This is brisk, lively, complicated biography skillfully told, helped along by a generous assortment of noteworthy talking heads from filmmakers and colleagues alike. This isn’t a hagiography or teary-eyed tribute. It paints a multifaceted picture of Ebert the man, not just Ebert the public figure. Dissenting voices are heard. Descriptions of some of Ebert’s testier tendencies are included. Honest discussions of his darker days make the cut. He was, after all, just as human as the rest of us.

James began work on the documentary during what were Ebert’s final months. Cancer left him without physical voice. He was thin. He was weak. He was fed through a tube. He communicated by typing on his laptop or scrawling on a notepad. The Eberts allowed James and his cameras into their lives and the footage he captured is a heartbreakingly unflinching look at the effects of this disease on who was once a robust, energetic, avuncular figure. It’s an insightful, inspiring look into the resiliency of a writer who simply had to continue having his say, right up until the very end. It’s also a glimpse of the strength of love he had in his life with Chaz a warm, determined presence, and their marriage clearly one of mutual respect. The film touches profundity in the calm Ebert has in the face of death. Did he know he was about to die? Perhaps. There’s an eerie comfort in seeing a beloved figure face the inevitable with such acceptance.

The movie opens with video of Ebert’s famous quote about cinema’s power as “a machine that generates empathy.” That’s precisely what this film about his life does. It’s filled with biographical information, clips of films, great anecdotes, and loving reminiscences. But what lingers is the sight of Ebert in the hospital, propped up in a wheelchair with a keyboard on his lap, determined to put down more words. For decades, his writing had such a strong voice, so cheerfully personal, quotable, and idiosyncratic, that it was as if he wrote his own memoir before he actually wrote it. To read his oeuvre in total is to get an understanding of the man himself, his preferences, habits, interests, pet peeves, and deeply held convictions. On TV, as one of that medium’s greatest duos, he and Siskel arrived weekly in America’s living rooms, friendly and familiar. But on the page and on the airwaves, he was working in close-up. With Life Itself, Steve James pulls the camera back on Ebert’s life and takes it all in.
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