Sunday, June 29, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) Film Review

There are those moments when the global political climate has become so polarized that film become something of a commenting agent on the nature of social balance, often to the detriment of actual substance and/provocation. In recent years, this has come in the form of numerous big budget offerings such as The Dark Knight Rises(2012), The Hunger Games(2012), and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (also 2012). Films flirting with ideas of revolution, often to middling, and often pandering results that speak to a more established worldview. Which is why with great joy and relief that Bong Joon-ho's first western-style feature ranks amongst the very best of its kind. And I say this understanding just how troubling such an opinion could be. But as it stands, SNOWPIERCER does for modern allegorical science fiction what it did for many of the best during the strife-ridden 1970s. A wild, weird fever poem that comes out of the gates swinging with heavy rusted metal in its hands, refusing to let go of the fight.

Right onto the bitter end.

Based upon the graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige by Lob, Rochette, and Legrand, we are thrust headlong into an earth subsumed by a new ice age after an ecological cure-all for global warming backfires. The remains of humanity are now populating a fully self sustaining locomotive which travels the frozen globe over the course of a year. And civilization has resumed its old world habits as the rich and powerful maintain the front, "sacred" engine of the train, while the rest toil in desolation in the rear cars. Seventeen years of this existence has sown seeds of revolution amongst the tail dwellers before, but Curtis Everett (a thoughtful, solid Chris Evans) has a plot in mind which threatens to go further than any previous revolt. But in order to do this, Everett and comrades must enlist the services of former engineer Namgoong Minsoo, a convict with extensive understanding of the train's design and security systems..and his equally loopy daughter, Yona (played by Bong Joon-ho veterans, Song Kang-ho, and Go Ah-Sung, again playing family). The deal is made by way of a shared addiction to a dangerous hallucinogenic drug being distributed to the pair in small doses each gate they open.

After years of living as "freeloaders" to the elites of the locomotive, living off of mysterious food product, and scraping for what amount of comfort and space possible, Curtis and friends undertake what is mythically a bare fisted journey through the ranks of civilization as the powers that be struggle to maintain the long established order. In the guise of the ever prim and frankly, over-the-top Mason (played with great relish by favorite, Tilda Swinton), strikes against the order have normally found themselves sufficiently snuffed out. But alas, Curtis and company prove themselves time and again. Despite this, a breathless game of not-so-magical doorknobs ensues as the rebellion finds that their mythical world is far stranger and terrifying than ever imagined. Even as they move forward car by car, Curtis' hopes to install respected elder, Gilliam (John Hurt) as the engine's new representative are put to great test. This is perhaps a good place as any to admit that the structure of SNOWPIERCER does such a surprising job of fulfilling so many important character beats in careful, but unusual doses as the journey becomes increasingly grueling. And yet, director Bong, cast and crew never let up on the world building and tension throughout the piece. Many often simple rules of storytelling are defied early on, but are rewarded by way of unexpected strokes of personality later. Strokes that are often the earmarks of an auteur ready to play in this larger, more expressive canvas. The director is aware of the dark dream he is carving together here, and it's both an alien, and understandably human one.

Seeking to overthrow the order of the train in hopes of liberating what remains of humankind is at the core of our heroes' mission, but to know what lies at the end entices with an unerring dread. Complicating their journey ahead, are the loss of two young children belonging to two of the would-be rebels(Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner). The story tightens its grip rather aggressively, and plays upon numerous notions of inequality and exploitation, as our characters face frightening enemies, experience sunlight for the first time, not to mention view the world left behind. (where all are told that it is a hellscape, guaranteeing death for those who choose to escape the confines of the train) The painterly nature of the entire film is challenged by such small and confined quarters. And yet somehow each realm represents a new rung on the societal ladder. Considering the original controversy between Joon-ho, and the Weinstein's over the length of the film for US audiences, it is incredibly hard to imagine what would warrant edits. There doesn't seem to be any additional fat on this bone. The thoughts and events on display show little to no reason for additional cuts, and the final film works despite what first time viewers might assume was a rushed opening.

Stories of the train/society's great creator, Wilford (Ed Harris) is hinted at throughout, adding more to the mystery behind the creation and maintenance of this enduring machine. And the road to Wilford is a harsh, costly one that underlies phrases dispersed throughout the film regarding precise balance, controlled numbers, and a need to maintain places in the set hierarchy. The have-nots languish in near Holocaust-like trappings, littered with filth and roaches, and the haves are served regularly to the points of absurdity. The selected few young who are born on the train are served doses of canned education regarding the machine as a savior, and Wilford the unseen, divine benefactor. All within the guise of "natural order". With Mason and her gallery of near fanatical weirdos protecting the train's wealth, we are guests to a surrealist's vision of our daily world, granting us a large scale vision that is effectively nightmarish. The "sacred engine", is what it is due to triumphing over science's greatest gamble, and yet nothing has changed from the human world of the outside. A simulacrum. A continuation. Business as usual.

The element that makes this even more impactful, is in how to consider the director's past works, and his own concerns for his homeland. Bong Joon-ho has used a diverse array of genres to protest what he sees as a grand problem for growing up South Korean. And what he has fashioned here becomes his most direct message to date: the rebels, are Northerners. While the patented, passive aggressive silliness in the latter cars represents the Gagnam Style in all its horrifically plastic glory. And if this is little more than a reductive pet theory, just wait until the final act where motivations are revealed, and don't say that it doesn't sound more than a little familiar. While quite universal in its concerns for the inequities of modern civilization, there are lines here that echo heavily from Korea's tortured past. And to have Hollywood actors deliver these lines is a subversive piece of serendipity that is simply miraculous (not to mention gutting). Also thrilling to witness, is the re-pairing of Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung who continue to play father and daughter brilliantly. Come to think of it, everyone across the board is solid. If there were even one remotely off-key note in the cast, perhaps it is Jamie Bell's Edgar, who feels a little uneven in the handling. 

Joon-ho's poetics start off relatively simplistic throughout the initial thirty minutes, but are textured greatly come the latter half when we finally discover who these entities are, what they represent, and just how paradoxical certain world models truly are. And when matters finally reach their meltdown point in what stands as the boldest denouement of this type of story possible, it becomes easier to see why director Bong chose what he did. Greater themes of trust, and an overall reflexive approach to nature lie at the burning core of SNOWPIERCER, that could generally put off certain viewers. Because at a glance, the film and its cast imply something that so easily comports itself to the typical big budget spectacle. This is no simplistic exploration of bourgeois versus the proles, it is a map of what has led us to this point, troubles and all. And the answers are not pat in any way, and might very well be painful to experience. What we really have here, is a triumph of vision on par with the best fantastical cinema has ever attempted. Not simply concerned with being a balm for the disenfranchised,  SNOWPIERCER, is a glorious splinter in the side of our developed world, and I couldn't be happier that it exists.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tsukamoto Revisited: Bullet Ballet (1998) An Astonishing Point Of Metamorphosis

It is never easy to make the leap from the more artistically flexible world of no-budget filmmaking, and into the slick and often more hobbled sheen of mainstream cinema without losing a bit of the initial authorial spark in the process. Once such a transition happens, it often becomes less about the personal voice, and more about maintaining accounts and studio credibility. And when this happens, certain story molds are often adopted in the name of playing matters toward viewers less accustomed to an auteur's vision. If global cinema still has a lively community of independent-minded creators with an extended pinky toe in the mainstream, one has to include Shinya Tsukamoto amongst this rabble. And despite his being a voice that has seen some truly commercial cul-de-sacs, it has often been one to never stray terribly far from his initial, almost home-made texture. Whether it be via the generous and handsome use of handheld, hyperkinetic editing, and largely non-diegetic audio, a few seconds in, and one can almost feel that the characters of TETSUO are never truly far away from the current story we are witnessing.

So when we delve back in time, and seek out the point when this voice made its first leap into classically linear storytelling, we inevitably come to Bullet Ballet. Shot on his still go-to-black and white, and adorned with much of what made TETSUO and Tokyo Fist so aesthetically troubling, Ballet injects a most unexpected mass of humanity where much had been missing by design previously. Part coming-of-age story, part recession-era ball of existentialism, Ballet paints a stark vision of urban loneliness without the meandering dialogue, or navel-gazing often known to bog many a similar piece down. By contrast, Tsukamoto employs the best of his already established arsenal to weave a tale where the young and the old find themselves at a spiritual impasse, often with bittersweet epiphanies illustrated by their actions.

Successful commercial director, Goda suddenly arrives home to discover his wife dead by apparent gunshot to the head. Shocked enough at the loss, let alone the means (he explains to authorities that they never owned, let alone possessed a firearm), he is suddenly enamored with the idea of seeking such a weapon in one of the most gun strict cultures imaginable. Throughout what seems to be a desperate quest to end his life upon said acquisition, he run across a gang of daredevil youths seemingly experiencing a similar turning point. Particularly in the guise of  the wayward Chisato (Kirina Mano) , who seems to resonate with the death-tripping Goda. All sides flirting with an avalanche of change that seems programmed to consume them all, the establishment and the restless find themselves in near rhythmic syncopation.

One of the most impressive things that Tsukamoto advances into a more dramatic structure, is a very raw sense of desolation as our characters seek a means to escape their concrete cages. So much of the film's visual architecture is pure walled, wet, neon drenched, and artifice. It's to such a degree, that it envelops the cast into this realm where sunlight is more incidental, and much less assuring. Even as Goda and company wander the Tokyo cityscape, there is a feeling of near suffocation that ultimately compliments their often irrational behavior. Even as they run across an entire world of seedy characters, undocumented denizens, lowlives, killers, and weirdos, it all feels like Tsukamoto is not reveling in this world in ways that other directors do. It becomes clear that many are this way because of their surroundings. It even goes so far as to imply that the only reason why Goda is reacting the way he is, is because of this ingrained need to fulfill the obligations of the collective- without asking the soul first.

Throughout his near nightly jags of considering death, it is the words of his lost love that haunts. Especially when they agreed to society's narrative over their own individual ones.

In flashbacks and by way of his encounters with Chisato and her friends, we are host to a system long in the function, but low on the self-reflection. So when violence by way of technology comes into play as a solution, it's easy to see how such a curse seems to have been woven into the Japanese experience post-WWII. Tsukamoto and company are viscerally taking on the detritus of the previous generation, and somehow finding beauty within it all. Even as development and technology begins to show signs of decay and scarification, the 1990s as a decade presented this opportunity in ways that perhaps have been covered up by means of mobile device culture, and a growing disconnect between individuals rather than groups. Because if even Goda could find some manner of future beyond his loss, it is all about roaming the landscape, never sure if salvation is right around the corner.  

Because destruction is nearly a lead-in to other realities, Tsukamoto seems to be implying. Whether it be via a bullet or nuclear blast, those left behind must still reassemble futures.

Nothing, is ever truly over.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014): Movie Thoughts

As humanity takes its final breaths after a devastating alien invasion, military PR officer, Lt. Col. Bill Cage(Tom Cruise), is summoned by high command and ordered to join the front lines of a massive final assault. Completely green in the realm of combat, Cage’s protests are countermanded, as he is knocked unconscious and dropped off where the united military forces prepare for the anticipated Operation Downfall near Verdun. And despite his unending wishes to avoid service if he has to, a sneak attack on the human forces sends Cage and fellow soldiers into what looks like a clear pre-emptive slaughter. Upon the hellish battlefield, it is here that Cage’s encounter with the fearsome MIMIC entities leaves him dead..Only for him to awaken back at the drop off spot, merely hours before. In a bizarre twist, his day has reset, and seems to do so every time he is killed. Seeing the advantages to this potentially nightmarish predicament, it is here that he runs into celebrated war hero, Rita Vratatski ( “The Angel Of Verdun”, played to perfection by Emily Blunt), who apparently is familiar with this phenomenon. Together, this shared knowledge is put to the ultimate test as the alien ability to “reset” time is now in Cage’s hands, but the MIMICs are never to be underestimated.

Based on the 2004 light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and the subsequent manga, the puzzlingly retitled, Edge Of Tomorrow is easily one of the better J-media adaptations imaginable. Taking a cue from the original book, and dismantling the often typical otaku archetypes and attitudes, and keeping the speculative wackiness of the universe makes for an effective retooling. For the typical “kill ‘em all” storylines in military action films of the past, it’s refreshing to see a fantasy take on it with such humor and energy. Doug Liman, working with an often thin, but personality-riddled script by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez & John-Henry Butterworth, creates the ultimate in-video game experience, complete with just enough gravity and laughs to keep it fun throughout. Embodying the action game scheme by way of a Vonnegut meets Grimwood meets Groundhog Day manner, where characters relive the same day, only to exploit this as a means of tactical advancement.

The catch here being that death is the only trigger for a new life.

Which makes for the film’s most sadistically funny conceit; we get to see Tom Cruise die an absurd number of times attempting to turn the tide of this most dire 24 hours! And considering years of the media, and subsequent public disdain for the Hollywood legend, there is an audience who is ready and willing to partake in such a twisted idea. Thankfully, so is Cruise, who delivers one of his most infectiously fun performances in an action film, ever. He’s so ready to throw himself into proceedings, that it almost feels masochistic at points. But this is well earned, as the character of Cage starts out as your classic combat dodging mannequin, stopping at nothing to ditch active duty, even going so far as to blackmailing his commanding officer played by the ever wonderful Brendan Gleeson. Starting at this particular compass point, Cruise’s arc involves him growing more and more acquainted with faces on the field (including a still bug hunting, Bill Paxton in top form), as well as a concept of sacrifice. Which leads us to the biggest surprise of all..

This technically isn’t even a Tom Cruise vehicle..

Enter Rita Vratatski, the woman who’s surprise victory over the MIMIC menace led to the proliferation of the military’s exoskeleton project, and is hailed as an almost mythic war hero. Emily Blunt’s rendition of the character is one that not only aces the original book’s, but becomes a thrilling touchpoint for big budget action cinema. Where Cruise plays something of a central role throughout the film, it is ultimately Blunt’s presence that heralds something to the effect of a torch passing. A character with only the mission, and fragments of a past that she guards quite closely makes for a refreshing business lead. She knows how the “game” works, and is entrusting her fate to a man who must only help her by way of dying repeatedly for the sake of self-improvement. But when she can fight, its a raw exhibition of dedication and poise. Even better, she is not idealized in any classic manner of otaku fetishism. While we may have experienced a number of action heroes who happen to be female in the past, the idea that this is not only a non-issue, but one whom a once vaunted action star would defer to in a most sincere sense, is significant. Cruise, is very much the sidekick!

Soon into the midsection of the film, it becomes implied that there are far more renditions of this day that are not shown, leaving us to play along as Cage and Vratatski attempt to outwit fate time and again. If any flaws begin to invade the story, this is where it happens. Even so, it almost seems to be parodying what we expect from big action films, and having a blast while doing it. The loop storyline becomes a kind of window for us to better understand not only how the war could be won, but also of our leads who couldn’t be from greater divisions. Where the film begins to flirt with the implications of their unique moral places, is also where it flags a bit until the shaky finale. We never get a full exploration of their changing worldviews by way of this bizarre situation, and as such, the film must be taken as more a ride than anything else. After all, we are talking more of video games of a previous generation than of the way they are slowly beginning to spider in complexity and moral quandary. But where it does make up for all of this, is in humor and action, which bursts out in torrents. The battle sequences are striking, and the MIMIC creatures are things of  an almost drug-addled beauty.

In summation, Edge Of Tomorrow is easily one of the year’s biggest genre surprises. Far from the typical Tom Cruise action fare, this is perhaps the best of its kind, and easily Liman's best in over a decade. And it is sure to reward upon repeat viewings. As for the implications of war spin doctors being forced into fighting wars alongside those who actually volunteered for service, one could certainly do worse. But perhaps in conflicts post WWII, all we have been doing, has been retooling ourselves into further understanding the future. There are some mild jabs of this nature happening throughout, but it never comes to any major fruition. Which is to say relax, unwind, suit up, and get ready to watch Tom Cruise live out the NES Ninja Gaiden campaign of your dreams.

All the dying, none of the controller-gnawing after effects.