Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

Spoiler-free Review:
Dystopias can be a tricky thing. They run a gamut between the outright believable, and thus more chilling settings (Children of Men, The Road), to those exotic and sometimes overly stylish canvasses that serve to showcase a writer's themes (Brazil, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale). Snowpiercer can be firmly placed somewhere on the side of the latter, but that's not a bad thing at all, as there's a hefty amount of substance mixed in with its slick look.

The film is directed by South Korean Joon-ho Bong. While not familiar with Joon-ho Bong's full body of work, I'm a fan of his clever 2006 endeavour, The Host, and encourage any lover of monster movies to check it out. Snowpiercer doesn't spend a great deal of time on the premise or explaining all the details of its setting—a present-day attempt to reverse global warming results in the freezing of the world. A brilliant industrialist with a love of trains has already constructed a luxury locomotive with a self-contained ecosystem that circumnavigates the planet, and that becomes the refuge for humanity's survivors. Jump ahead 17 years and life aboard the train is a rigid caste system with the elites at the front, and the rabble at the tail. A situation ripe for revolution. Yes, Snowpiercer can be heavy-handed in its themes.

Bong assembled an effective and eclectic cast with Chris Evans (Captain America) as hero of the tail section, Curtis, who takes charge of the revolution to seize the front of the train and the eternal engine. Kang-ho Song (The Host) is a former security expert crucial to the uprising. Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) delivers another memorable performance as Mason, one of the elites charged with keeping everyone in their proper place, with John Hurt as the wizened mentor to Curtis. Octavia Spencer (Community) and Ed Harris also star. It's a great cast that meshes well together, with Evans managing the main role quite effectively.

Snowpiercer looks great. It's beautifully shot, with some memorable vistas of the frozen Earth. While the entire movie takes place on the train, each car presents a new setting, and progressively gets brighter the farther we move from the tail section, beginning in its washed out palette and moving to the vibrancy and technological wonders of the front. 

I was continually reminded of Terry Gilliam's filmmaking style. There are some particularly surreal scenes, a lot of it surrounding the cultlike and messianic adoration of the people for Wilford, the train's creator (the eternal engine is life! Everyone has their place!), and bizarre bits of random humour. It's especially personified by Tilda Swinton's character and actress Alison Pill's over-the-top school teacher performance. But it serves to highlight this isn't a humanity familiar to us. Just enough time has passed to allow us to believe in this self-contained community (and wouldn't some kind of religious zeal be necessary to keep such a microcosm of society in line for so long?).

The dystopic world presented here does need to be taken with a hefty grain of salt. While the global cooling chemical that pushes the Earth into an ice age isn't much beyond the realm of experiments gone awry, the train itself is best enjoyed when not scrutinized too much. It's a closed environment that runs on a perpetual motion machine, and circles the earth once every year. Coincidentally (or not) it becomes the last refuge for a sliver of humanity when the world freezes. It hugs the sides of snowy peaks as it crosses enormous trestle bridges and smashes through fallen ice with relative ease. Yet Bong's sometimes surreal style still kept me grounded in the movie and allowed me to buy in to the premise, unlike the more hard science fiction like Elysium, which, while looking real, left me scratching my head for most of it wondering how such a geo-political future came about.

The train is the perfect metaphor. It's a prison. It's the world. It never stops. It follows the same route year after year. The progression from the back to the front is a progression from darkness into light, ignorance into knowledge. 

Snowpiercer is just as engaging as an action movie alone, and launches into it very quickly, taking the audience along with few breaks in the momentum. And those pauses, when they occur, provide welcome moments to explore some of the history and characters and insights into life aboard the train.

That dichotomy led to an interesting controversy in getting Snowpiercer into the American market, with Harvey Weinstein demanding to cut as much as 20 minutes in order to make for a more action-oriented experience. Or to put it more blatantly, dumbing it down for American audiences. I have a sense what those cuts would have entailed (the aforementioned elementary school scene, and a dramatic insight into Curtis' backstory, two of the larger breaks in the action). But these were essential to the movie, so it would have been severely diminished without them, or any number of others. Fortunately the director won that battle and it's getting its intact release, and judging from box office results could be a sleeper hit in North America.

Snowpiercer kept me guessing as to its ultimate destination. Bong manages to maintain tension throughout in a steady progression through the cars, with each opened door revealing something new and unsettling. While several aspects were predictable, a host of others were not. There is no character too important not to be expendable, and one is never certain they know exactly what is driving the plot. 

Snowpiercer is very blatant in its allegory, but presents plenty of material for post-theatre discussion, and very likely lots to rediscover in rewatching. Bong succeeds in giving the audience a sufficient emotional punch, as I had bought into the fates of everyone, even the more minor characters. Definitely not on the scale of something like Cloud Atlas, but I was reminded a little bit of The Divide by the end of it. While I had no doubts I would enjoy Snowpiercer, I was pleasantly surprised how much I did. It's a film that definitely can find its niche among the less thoughtful summer blockbusters.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: The Walking Dead 118

Non Spoiler Review:
Issue 118 keeps the All Out War arc moving briskly, with Rick and Ezekiel's armies attacking Negan's outposts. Back at the Hilltop Gregory returns to find controversy over his decision to appease Negan.

All Out War continues to be a good read, and the last few issues have not lacked for action or development. Casualties begin to mount and loyalties start to fray, and I'm sure something ominous must be on the horizon despite the current state of Negan's forces.

Spoilers Now!
Gregory is alive, and returns to the hilltop exhausted with the few who abandoned Rick's campaign. He's furious when Maggie asks if the attack was successful, revealing she knew of it. Gregory declares it was him who stopped the suicide mission and smoothed things over with Negan. While Gregory doesn't even know who Maggie is, she accuses him of being a coward, but when Greg replies that Negan is the reasonable party and it's Rick who is crazy, she punches him.

Maggie proceeds to address the crowd telling them it's their time to act to take down Negan lest they be beholden to him the rest of their lives. While Gregory weekly protests, she announces she believes in Rick Grimes.

Back in Alexandria a worried Carl finds Michonne returning absent his father, but she assures him he's working on attacking Negan's outposts. He's relieved to hear the plan worked.

Later Ezekiel makes his way to Alexandria and confides how their first victory had been luck. Dwight had revealed the location of four of their outposts. While Rick led a successful attack against one (despite Eric being killed), Ezekiel's men were massacred, and he was forced to flee. Shiva managed to save him from walkers, but was overwhelmed and killed herself, allowing him to escape. Alone with Michonne, he admits he wishes he had not survived, so his men would see him as a hero and he would not have lost Shiva.

The Verdict:
118 keeps the pace of the storyline and brought some much-needed attention to Maggie so that she could rally troops at the Hilltop. I admit I was surprised that Gregory had actually survived. He's the biggest wild card right now and I can imagine him doing something desperate to retain control.

The first major losses stacked up this month—Eric and Shiva. Right now it's unclear how many men Rick has left, but no doubt the Hilltop will be able to provide some new recruits, unless Gregory somehow manages to rebuild his power base. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: American Horror Story: Coven "Head"

Non Spoiler Review:
Head addresses Hank's backstory and the true nature of his mission with Marie and marriage to Delia. The head in question is Delphine, and Queenie opts to take her under her care and teach her a lesson. Meanwhile, Myrtle schemes to bring the coven back into order, starting with the council and Delia. Nan struggles to remain at Luke's bedside despite his mother.

Who knew that a decapitated Kathy Bates would be so much fun? Her scenes were the funniest of the season so far, and provided a great contrast to the darker elements of the episode. 

Head was one of the best, culminating in what was generally expected, but promising an exciting conclusion to the season when the story resumes in the new year.

Spoilers Now!
In 1991, a young Hank is taken into the woods by his witch hunter father. They've been hunters for generations, his dad explains as they load the rifle. They proceed deeper into the trees until his father flushes out a woman who falls in front of Hank. Hank is told to put her down, and as she begs for her life he can't bring himself to kill her, allowing her time to cast fire against his father before she collapses. As he puts out his burning jacket, the older man reminds his son never to forget what they are.

Fiona visits Marie's salon with the box, asking to talk. Marie reluctantly agrees, and in the back Fiona finds the decapitated body of Delphine standing in the cage. Marie chastises Fiona for using Delphine as a bargaining chip. Fiona wants to talk terms, but Marie laughs at the prospect they can mend the truce. Delphine pipes up from inside the box that Fiona is insane. Fiona wants to stop the petty quarrelling given the witch hunters that attacked the night before. Witch hunters are white women's worry, Marie counters. She also knows Fiona has cancer and can't protect her own. Fiona tells Queenie to go burn the box with Delphine's head, so she takes it away, and Fiona leaves.

Myrtle wants to ensure Delia has no doubts that she had anything to do with the acid attack. Delia never doubted her, she assures her.

In Atlanta, Hank visits the Delphi Trust, home of the witch hunters, to see his father. They're not happy with his progress in New Orleans and especially not that he allied himself with the voodoo queen. He should not take initiative, they remind him as he's only to gather intelligence. That's why he's married to Cordelia. Hank tells him he's more capable than he thinks. But his father already knows about the fire starter he killed, which they had to clean up after, and which ended the lives of a maid and desk clerk as a result. The hunt isn't only about the kill—they only strike when the time is right, and they need Hank back in the house. The acid attack on Delia was authorized by them to ensure she needed Hank. But someday she will need to be put down.

Myrtle entertains the council, who have returned after her surprising phone call and have regrets about the misunderstanding that led to her burning. And they want to hear all about Misty Day. Myrtle explains she has power, compassion and uniqueness. As Pembrooke toasts her she begins to choke on the meal, and she and Quentin are paralyzed. Myrtle chastises them for wanting to eliminate her so they could dominate the council. But she brought them there to help Cordelia—and proceeds to remove an eye from each with the melonballer. With that and her magic, Delia can see again.

Fiona arrives home shocked to find her daughter healed, and Myrtle thanks her for sending her to the flames to bring her clarity. She also cut up the bodies of the council and disposed of them. The two trade accusations of murder and Fiona threatens her with permanent exile. Delia reminds Myrtle she needs to treat her mother as the supreme and her mother needs to stop accusing Myrtle. The real danger is outside. She also realizes that her gift has vanished with the return of her sight.

At the hospital Zoe and Madison find Nan who has been sitting outside of Luke's room. His mother won't let her see him. Luke remains in a coma with Joan at his side. She's furious when the girls enter. However Nan can hear him in her mind. Luke tells Nan information to verify that he's communicating with her so Joan acquiesces and sings to her son with Nan at her side. 

Queenie keeps Delphine's head and brings her home, giving her Roots to watch. She vows to educate her about her people. 

In his hotel room Hank suddenly feels the torture of Marie's magic while her emissary arrives to demand the heads of the white witches. She wants them dead that night or he'll die. Hank is left alone and loads up his weapons.

Delia teaches Misty about herbs, including one that banishes evil that she should use only in extreme circumstances. After Misty leaves, Delia finds Hank behind her. He's astonished to see her sight is back. She won't have any of his affection despite his desire to get back in her good graces. Misty returns, and Hank remembers her—he's the one who tried to kill her at the cabin. He refuses to leave the house but Delia advises him she's filing for divorce. Upstairs Hank leaves with a box of his stuff, but is stopped by Fiona's new menacing guard dog. She explains they needed some protection. The dog leads Fiona to Zoe's room where she finds Kyle. She tells him to leave but Kyle just breaks the dog's neck.

At the hospital Joan suddenly sees Nan as a miracle for giving her a ray of hope. Nan then explains that Luke is telling her God is judging Joan for what she did to his father. His father's death was no accident. In a flashback, he was stung by a swarm of bees, put there by Joan who knew he was allergic. She killed him because he was leaving her. Joan turns on Nan and tells her it's all been a dark trick, sending her away. 

The girls come home to find a far more cogent Kyle playing gin with Fiona. She took the liberty of sprucing him up. He's not all there but he's okay. They need a new guard dog, one who will attack on command, Fiona explains. 

After watching all of Roots, Delphine gloats she kept her eyes shut the whole time. Queenie decides to play her civil rights music instead and joins Marie downstairs as Hank walks in and begins to shooting. He shoots Queenie in the stomach and proceeds into Marie's chamber. Queenie struggles to grab a gun and crawls after. Marie comes out and Hank shoots her in the arm, and is about to finish the job when Queenie puts the gun in her own mouth and shoots. Hank's head blows off. Upstairs Delphine finds herself touched by the images of the civil rights movement.

Hank's father gets the photos of his son's body. Luke wakes up from his coma with his mother at his side. But all he can say is she murdered his father. Joan tells him to go back to sleep and puts a pillow over his face. At the school, Fiona goes to answer the door and finds Marie Laveau. She welcomes her inside and shuts the door.

The Verdict:
Head was a great episode, balancing the ominous nature of the revelation of the witch hunter threat against some hilarious Kathy Bates moments. Meanwhile, Myrtle, Delia and Fiona all shone with some great scenes.

I doubt Queenie is dead, especially with the likes of Misty Day nearby to solve the problem. If she manages not to survive this, Ryan Murphy has some 'splainin' to do given all the resurrected characters currently running around.

The approach to returning Delia's eyesight was especially novel, but I wonder just what purpose the council serves if Myrtle can off them with no all seems very much like the True Blood Authority (meaning, it lacks any authority whatsoever aside from dramatic purpose).

Again, the Luke situation is feeling very tacked on. I have no idea how this will tie into the big storyline, unless his family turns out to have some sort of association with either party. Right now it's a distraction from the main action.

Next episode—Marie and Fiona working together against the witch hunters? Yes please.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: The Walking Dead 117

Non Spoiler Review:
Negan and Rick deal with the fallout from the first battle of the war. Holly gets a firsthand view of Negan's state of mind.

117 was a decent follow up to an exciting few issues, and leaves us with plenty to wonder about as Rick's crew prepares for the next attack.

Spoilers Now!
Negan believes he's captured Rick's girlfriend, but Holly informs him she barely knows him and that he never succeeded in killing Andrea either. She goes on to reveal the reason she wanted to bring down their gate was revenge for killing Abraham. Vexed, Negan needs time to figure out his next move so has her taken away.

Negan and his men attempt to cut through the horde surrounding his compound but are forced back inside by shear numbers. He gets his smart people working on a solution while ordering his men to sporadically go out and attempt to trim down their numbers.

On the road, Rick struggles with Holly's decision as the others wonder what fate awaits her. Without delaying too long, Rick announces their plan to press on and take out Negan's outposts before they can be alerted.

Holly is visited by one of Negan's men, David, to check in, but he proceeds to attempt to rape her. Negan suddenly arrives and pulls him off, berating him for descending to that level. They will eventually have to work with these people once the war ends. We don't rape, he tells him, and cuts David's throat. As David dies Negan explains to a stunned Holly they're not monsters.

The Verdict:
The big question this month is how genuine Negan is with Holly, or was David's death a con? He does seem to retain his own moral code given how he kept Carl and Rick alive for so long. But pressed with the reality of the zombies outside his home, will he crack? 

How long will Rick's success last? Cut off from Negan, can the outposts survive? No doubt Rick and Jesus will run into a few surprises during their campaign.
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