Snowpiercer has a cast filled to the brim with brilliant, entertaining actors and a director whose back catalogue is, for my money, closer to perfect than any other working director’s. Despite this, I didn’t go into it with high expectations, mostly due to some pretty dull trailers. And my fears were confirmed. Whereas Bong Joon-ho’s previous films are delightfully entertaining with complex themes so subtle that engaging with them is basically optional, Snowpiercer is as direct and hard to move around in as the train it takes place in. I can see how the stripped-down nature of the concept could seem like an exciting one for an action film; A train full of Earth’s last survivors where poor people live in squalor in the back and rich people live in decadence in the front, and the journey from one end to the other. It’s a concept that travels along with its plot, and has momentum built into it; It’s probably the most inherently action oriented concept for a movie since Speed. And the themes of class are sound, they’re astute and well constructed. But after seemingly endless monologues from multiple characters who exist only as mouthpieces for said themes, you start feeling sorry for the dead horse Boon-ho is beating long before the end of the movie. This is a movie where they dress Tilda Swinton, hamming it up like never before, like a cartoon character and then make her endlessly deliver dialogue like “We must occupy our pre-ordained position.” and “Know your place.” Stating this outright once would have been hand-holding, but practically all the dialogue in the film is merely restating it. Then you have to sit through Ed Harris explaining it all again like three or four more times.
Who can say why Joon-ho decided to abandon subtlety for Snowpiercer. It sure wasn’t for a wider appeal, not in his home country anyway. He’s basically the James Cameron of South Korea, helming many of the top-grossing films in their history. Was it a concession to the English speaking audience, this being his first movie primarily aimed at them? (If so, that blew up in his face- the US distributor was apparently worried that this movie wouldn’t play well domestically and crippled its distribution when Joon-ho wouldn’t let them re-edit it.) Did he just simply want to try something new? At the moment we don’t know, but it feels like the release of the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty; A whiff so hard from someone previously so consistently excellent you can’t help but struggle for an explanation.
Adding insult to injury are the action scenes. The one or two that work, work because they’re excellent ideas, not because they’re presented especially thrillingly. The rest of the action scenes, the bulk of them, present us with no specific action, just signifiers of action; frames filled with people swinging objects at other people with no apparent effect or consequence. Noise. The action in The Host, the most action-oriented of Joon-ho’s previous films, worked as anti-action; It was a monster movie in broad daylight, everything happened slowly, there were very few surprises. It radiated subversive glee. In a movie as direct as Snowpiercer, if the action doesn’t carry the weight, the whole affair doesn’t land with a thud, it lands in a puff of air.
- This is a movie that, to both its credit and its disadvantage, comes with a lot of baggage. It’s the latest in a series of films that, despite incremental cosmetic changes, are all firing with the same cylinders. Whatever your feelings are about those films, you’re bringing them to this one. Although I love talking and thinking about the Marvel superhero films, I’m pretty ambivalent toward them. I compare my feelings to someone who loves sports stats, having an opinion on who got traded to what team and speculating about why that is or isn’t a good choice, but has little to no interest in actually watching sports. I find myself spending most of these movies being distracted by their murky narrative structure and being mortified by terrible, terrible jokes (Captain America being the biggest exception thus far). So how did The Avengers stack up for me? It was bad in the same ways as the previous films, but not as bad. I focused really hard on the narrative and was able to decipher what was going on, but I could see how someone watching more casually could have easily gotten lost, and the jokes more often than not triggered only moderate eye rolls. Overall I think The Avengers actually benefits from a general lack of ambition, perhaps having used all of its ambition on the massive amounts of money and coordination the film must have required, and hedging its bets when it came to things like jokes that consist of more than a cliche and a nod or villains that aren’t squarely generic. Because what happens as a result is this weird thing where, because they didn’t try and fail to do anything risky, and the spectacle was so smooth, I found watching the movie to be very, very easy. It would have been harder to stop watching it than it was to continue watching it, if that makes any sense, and all the complaints I might have had about the storytelling or jokes just kind of floated away. The end result, upon reflection, is a movie I feel pretty neutrally about. I found myself comparing it to Spider-Man 2, my favorite one of these. Spider-Man 2’s low points are far lower than anything in The Avengers, but it’s much more ambitious, and my favorite parts of Spider-Man 2 mean much more to me than anything about The Avengers.
- One thing that I thought was really interesting about this movie was its big standout moment, when The Hulk beats the tar out of Loki. What we’re cheering at here is The Hulk, a big dumb brute, pummeling Loki, a literate Shakespearian figure. In the world we’re living in, where popular culture is all but dictated by the taste of nerds, the jock is the underdog we’re rooting to victory.
- The Avengers is a really paint by numbers superhero affair. Superhero comic book readers will recognize it as a bare-bones presentation of the archetypical big superhero crossover story. It made me wonder if these films are going to follow the same evolutionary path that their comic book counterparts did. This trick is only going to work so many times, and I wonder where they’re going to turn when it loses its magic. Will people be ready for a big superhero deconstruction piece in a few years? I bet someone’s realizing that they should have held off on making that Watchmen adaptation just a little bit longer.
You’ve already seen Predators. Even if you haven’t seen Predators yet, you’ve already seen it. Even if you haven’t seen the original Predator, you’ve already seen Predators. You know what color it’s going to be, green. You know what type of characters are going to be in it, tough guys. You know they’re slowly going to die out one by one until only the protagonist and his love interest remain. I bet that thing that isn’t moving is only playing possum, it’ll jump up and scare everyone soon. And it does. There’s only one woman in it, so you know there’s going to be some tension tension between her and the lead male. And there is. Oop, here comes a mysterious new character, I wonder if someone is going to say “Who are you?” And they do. The Asian guy doesn’t have a katana at the beginning, but don’t worry. He gets one. (And, with wind reed musical accompaniment, has a sick sword duel with a Predator in tall grass!) What makes Predators’ complete lack of originality even harder to swallow is the fact that it’s a Predator movie. It’s a sequel to a franchise that has been dormant for twenty years, and this just feels like fan-fiction. I’m sure it’s comforting (to the studio’s accountants) to just give the people what they think they want, but you really have to update something like this. Make it, you know, better? Because I’ve never even seen a Predator movie (true story) and I feel like this is my second helping of the same dinner two days in a row. 2
Although it may have been intended as a strength, Cloverfield ultimately suffers from it’s stark simplicity. It’s a one trick pony that doesn’t offer anything under any level of scrutiny. It’s a barely passable thriller of the theme park variety, but empty characters, flat acting and the complete lack of any sort of theme keep it from being completely enjoyable even on that level. 2
Alien is a great film. It’s mostly due to the design of the alien creature itself, with a believable intrinsic mythology written all over it’s face that make it both fantastic and horrifyingly real. This overpowering element is cemented by the detailed, working class space ship set design and even further grounded by some very raw performances. The pace is slow and maybe not as absorbing as it attempts to be, but I don’t think anyone who is not just looking for a cheap thrill could claim to be bored. 4/5 stars
I was kind of expecting a wild movie about kids who surf on cards, but Tekkonkinkreet turned out to be a dark melodrama about two kids who live in a gang controlled city who can jump really high and get stabbed. It tried hard to be awesome, but mostly fails. There’s some undeniably beautiful images, like the beautify rendered backgrounds and vertigo inducing jumping sequences, but there’s even more skin-deep metaphors and tritely dark posturing. 2.5
Totally serviceable action film. I could sit here and make a list of all the things that are wrong with it (plot holes, little characterization, bad acting, trite moments), but the truth is that if you’re in the mood for a big, dumb, entertaining action movie this’ll hit the spot just fine. Just set the bar as low as possible. 2.5
Six String Samurai sure has a lot of good ideas, and it presents them nicely, but that’s all it does. One fun idea after another, each followed by a fight scene, aren’t connected in any thematic way and aren’t important to the plot, so it all gets quite tiresome really quickly. Even that might have held together, but terrible (often dubbed) sound and every other shot being in molasses-vision kill whatever momentum the movie might have been able to build for itself. The lead actor makes a few neat choices, but the whole thing is trying too hard to show us how weird it is without actually being weird enough to be interesting at all. 2