Monday, April 14, 2014

Movie Review: Snowpiercer

I became aware of the name Bong Joon-ho almost a decade ago when I watched a film that changed my life. It was a serial killer murder mystery that was so far away from the style of Hollywood, and so tense, gritty and audacious it cost me several nights of sleep. It was called Memories of Murder. The horror fan in me experienced some sort of a renaissance, and I grabbed friends by their collars and made them watch the film. Thanks to Memories of Murder coupled with another little one called Oldboy which I’d seen a week earlier, my love for Korean movies had well and truly crystallized.

Naturally, since then I proceeded to watch every single motion picture made by Joon-ho and Park Chan Wook. So when I got to know that these two titans were colliding for a single project called Snowpiercer, a crossover English language film, a science fiction action thriller, based on a popular graphic novel, my nerdingles glowed like fireflies. This is what I’d been waiting for all these years. And when I got to know that the producers of the film, the Weinsteins, were doing their best to chop the runtime and scuttle the film’s release, a volcano erupted in Jupiter. I was enraged beyond belief. But thanks to screenings at film festivals and the magic of the internet, fanboy rage was assuaged.

Snowpiercer now had a new problem. With so much emotional baggage and history attached to it, would it actually live up to its expectations? Let’s just say Joon-ho runs a whole train over all foreseeable doubts. This is an ambitious, intense, dark, brutal and consistently hypnotic motion picture, with all the intelligence and paranoid elements you expect from the likes of both Joon-ho and Chan-wook. It does to post apocalyptic sci fi films what Memories of Murder did to serial killer thrillers.  

Set entirely in a grimy, hideously ravaged train, Snowpiercer is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. I have not read the book so I can't comment on how close the film is to its source material, but it is clearly evident that the film adaptation stands on its own.

The world has ended thanks to a muddled up attempt at reversing global warming. The only human survivors on Earth are rolled up together in a self-replenishing train that hurtles across the globe. Now here’s the twisted part: To maintain the balance of nature, the head honchos of the train divide the humans into various compartments, with the poorest thrown in the back of the train in one single compartment. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) has had enough and plans a revolution to take over the engine.

Everything I've divulged takes place in the first five minutes of the movie. The introductory scenes are as compelling as anything in Snowpiercer, and the movie really starts to roll after Curtis and his friends start crushing their way through to the front of the train.

Not content to present a simple cat-and-mouse chase and fight scenes, Joon-ho repeatedly subverts your expectations and plays a few tricks on us as well.

As he goes deeper and deeper in the train Curtis finds himself tangled in a web of lies and deceit. There is a scene much like the one where Neo meets the architect in The Matrix, except the choice here is far more devastating for Curtis. Through Curtis the film asks you a series of questions: how far would you go to maintain the natural harmony? Who are we to define classism and separate humans in order of necessity? And if necessity calls for it, would you corrupt yourselves to indulge in a totalitarian regime because it is for the good of the society? Would you sacrifice a few hundred humans to save a few thousand? Curtis’ revolution soon becomes a curse to him as he is unable to acclimate to all of this. You’ll be as strung out and helpless as Curtis by the time you’re done with the questions the film poses.

The final cut runs two plus hours but if it ran another hour I doubt you'd hear much complaining. Joon-ho raises a number of themes and it’d have been great if he’d explored them further. Especially because unlike in stuff like Elysium, the class divide issue here is pretty engaging. And it’s not for the faint hearted because the social commentary here is pretty fucked up.

There are a few exciting fight sequences, best of which features a tunnel and axe murderers, but for the most part Snowpiercer is all about exchanges of intense dialogue. A lot of what happens in the train echoes the unspeakable horrors North Korea and the film boldly relies on character dynamics instead of visual exposition.

And yet the film is visually stunning, the atmosphere painstakingly created to make it look like a dirty fast moving train. There are a ton of visual cues that don’t register in the first viewing. In one scene a goon dips his axe in fish blood – I had to rewatch this and Google the fish to understand the significance of the scene. Adding to the film is the uniformly excellent cast, with Chris Evans in his most effective performance since Sunshine. And with Sunshine and now Snowpiercer Evans has appeared in two sci fi cult classics. Song Kang ho, the regular in both Joon Ho’s and Chan Wook’s films has a key role as a stoner with the keys to all the train doors. Both Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton have proved in the past that they have the chops for villainous performances, and here they bring a clarity and logic to their characters that make the antagonists all the more fascinating. 

Snowpiercer is a tremendous accomplishment, one of those rare smart thrillers that make you gawp excitedly. It’s not just a movie, it’s a reason to celebrate great cinema and to grab your friends by their collars and make them watch it.

(First published in DNA)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America The Winter Soldier

There were a lot of problems in Captain America The First Avenger. It was way too jingoistic and far too silly to maintain its façade of seriousness. The visual effects too weren’t very interesting – they were just merely adequate. The villain was a great actor playing an underdeveloped character. And the hero was only mildly more charismatic than the guy who played Thor. A lot has happened since that movie. The Avengers took the world by storm. Marvel is now a bigger, more confident company, and it shows in Captain America The Winter Soldier.

Winter Soldier takes every single gaffe of the first movie and rectifies it with glee. This is a completely different movie, and to an extent a brave one too considering its style and themes. And it sure as hell is more exciting and better arranged than the Thor sequel. It’s also better than the hit-and-miss Iron Man 3. That’s right – Captain America has well and truly arrived and Tony Stark is going to have to make way for the shield in the Avengers sequel.

While the first movie was a sort of ‘Amurica Roxx’ episode, the new film is a paranoia thriller with a hint of espionage drama. Steve Rogers (once again played wonderfully by Chris Evans) is now digesting the post Avengers world of SHILED and trying to come to terms with his ‘present’. Things take a turn when an Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) comes aboard the team with plans to turn it into a weaponized big brother central organization. It could seem like a ham fisted attempt at echoing the Edward Snowden incident, but it sure is a lot of fun. There’s also some funny camaraderie between Rogers and his new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, who turns into something cool later on in the film).

Moreover, the visual effects have taken a gigantic leap forward – some of the action set pieces are bigger than the previous movies in the canon. I won’t describe any partiular set piece, and I’d recommend you don’t see any trailers of the film either - because the action here is different, and more interesting than the other Avengers universe films. What actually makes them interesting is that they’re placed to move the plot forward, not just for mindless eye candy – even though there’s plenty of that too. And directors Joe and Anthony Russo deserve full credit for understanding that the Marvel films need to go in a new direction.

The Winter Soldier chracter is handled pretty well, even though you don’t need to be very smart to guess his identity. Comic book fans will be pleased too for the way the film sets up the foundation for future movies. The film is very good, and Marvel’s confidence proves it – they’re unwilling to move the release date of the third film, which coincides with the Batman-Superman movie. It’s Marvel vs DC, and after watching this movie I can confirm that Marvel is winning. So bring it on.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Noah

I’ll be honest – when it was announced that Darren Aronofsky was making a film on Noah’s Ark, I was disappointed. This is a filmmaker who has made path breaking cult hits such as Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Even Black Swan, which wasn’t a very original film was still dark and had that Aronofsky edge to it. I wanted him to make another thriller or a drama, and I didn’t least expect him to make a biblical epic. So how does Noah fare? It’s the least impressive Darren Aronofsky film, but not necessarily a bad one.

The problem with Biblical epics is always the same – they’re based on stories told over and over again, and they take themselves too seriously. As an atheist I may be biased against a film on Noah but that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy a good yarn on the big screen. Noah, it turns out, is the most ‘commercial’ Aronofsky film, while still barely maintaining the dark nature of his direction. The bigger problem was the film comes just a few years after the epic disaster of Steve Carrell’s Evan Almighty, which tried to spoof Noah’s tale. 

Russell Crowe is a bald, bearded badass of a Noah, and the film has a lot of the filmmaking and visual style of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. Like that movie, Noah has a hypnotic quality to it whenever it digs into the psychology of its mythological characters. Like that movie, it poses a few moral dilemmas to the audience through its protagonist. There’s a Lord of the Rings vibe to it as well, especially when the supernatural stuff and CGI monsters arrive. It’s grand and it’s visually spectacular, and it does manage to pull off its vision in the big VFX money shots. Not to mention the amazing score by Clint Mansell who reuses some bits from his previous Aronofsky collaboration The Fountain.

Unfortunately, that’s all there is to the movie – it’s a fun CGI fest, hollow on layers and philosophy. If you want to see a Noah theme park ride, this is the best ever made. But if you want to see a double-edged, ambitious, deeply introspective version of Noah, you’ll be disappointed. The film assumes that everything in the Old Testament is true, and asks you to assume the same. It does pander to the Christian audiences more than the average existentialist Aronofsky fan. It’s a mainstream film, for mainstream audiences, with mainstream actors. It’ll be your own fault if you expect anything remotely different or edgy from the movie. Don’t blame Aronofsky for trying something commercial – he’s crossed over fairly well, and you’ll enjoy the movie for what it is.

Movie Review: Oculus

The last three years have been some sort of a golden era for modern horror in Hollywood. With titles like Insidious and its sequel, Sinister, Mama, The Conjuring and You’re Next, things are certainly looking up for the horror film buff. Oculus is the latest entry to this pantheon and it is visually overpowering, well-acted, dark and creepy. It’s part psychological thriller, part mind trip, part straight up horror and just a small part of character-based drama, and full on entertainment.

The story is frightfully simple - the film chronicles the brother and sister duo of Tim (Brenton Thwaits) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who lock themselves in their old house to destroy a mirror, which they believe was responsible for the deaths of their parents.

Now here’s the twist – the film is presented from the point of view of both the siblings, and they’re both unreliable narrators, so we’re never sure whether to take the supernatural elements at face value. Director Mike Flanagan superbly weaves together the psychological setbacks of a traumatic childhood event with a haunted house scares. The narrative waltzes back and forth between the present day Tim and Kaylie and their younger versions who faced a harrowing night in the very same location.

For a film about a haunted mirror Oculus is pretty darn smart. Flanagan knows how ludicrous and clichéd the theme is, and he uses the clichés to his advantage. Tim and Kaylie are equally familiar with the stupidity of a ghostly mirror. So Kaylie uses all means of modern recording technology and other paraphernalia like thermometers and alarm clocks to make her scenario as believable as possible. Cleverly, Flanagan makes her character the psychologically fractured and obsessive one, so she has a reason to perform her bizarre experiment to ‘kill’ the ghost in the mirror. Her brother, recently out of a ward after years of counseling and psychiatric help is convinced that his sister is losing her mind, and that puts him on the side of the cynical audience. It’s an intelligent plot device and it’s refreshing to see a classy, creepy and effective ghost story in the modern age of torture porn and CGI heavy hollow scares.

Most of the film is set in one house, so the single location set is a nice touch to ramp up the tension. The film drips with atmosphere and there’s plenty of old fashioned scares. Rarely do modern horror films capture the unsettling silences of a spooky house, and Flanagan achieves just that with his directorial hand and sense of timing. Only James Wan’s movies absorb the viewer into them, and Flanagan comes very close to perfection. And unlike in most horror films the acting here is phenomenal, with Karen Gillan in particular in a surprisingly layered role. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff gets a great turn as the kids’ hapless mother, and she also renders the most horrifying jump scare in the film.

Whether you’re a horror buff or not, you should seriously consider watching Oculus on the big screen. It’s a really fun film with a lot of aural and visual style, and that means all the aesthetics and not just Karen Gillan.

(First published in MiD Day)