Snowpiercer

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4.5
July 28th, 2014 No comments

Snowpiercer, 2013, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France

I think I’ve watched the best film of the year so far. Snowpiercer is a bleak dystopian social satire that takes place entirely on a train. The year is 2031. After a failed attempt to control global warming results in a profound global cooling, the world is now uninhabitable. The only survivors are residents on the train, which moves along the same rail track year after year. Each car is separated by class: the lowest of the low are in the tail; the richest are in the front. Curtis (Chris Evans) is a resident of the tail and he is planning a revolution with the help of his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt) and his second-in-command, Edgar (Jamie Bell). They need someone who can open the gates, so they storm the prison car, freeing Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Namgoong built the gates, and agrees to open them in exchange for kronol – a highly addictive and flammable drug produced out of industrial waste. The goal of the revolution is to take the engine: he who controls the engine controls the train.

Director Joon-ho Bong’s English-language debut is a highly stylistic and unusual film. The cinematography was astoundingly beautiful, both in and outside the train. The fight sequences take advantage of the tight space on the train, and are choreographed brilliantly. In fact, during one sequence, I was reminded of the iconic fight scene in another South Korean film – Oldboy. He plays with light and dark, but everything about the train feels desolate and sad – even the walk-through aquarium and pompous dinner parties.

Evans was excellent as Curtis, a character who is, at times, devastatingly human. One of the highlights of the film was Tilda Swinton as Mason, who might be the most irritating, detestable character put to screen this year. She was incredibly good (and kudos to the makeup folks who created her teeth!). In the hands of a lesser actress, Mason might have been mere comic relief, but she manages to keep her menacing.

The Weinstein Company purchased the North American distribution rights to Snowpiercer, but have since tried to bury the film. They had wanted to cut 20 minutes out of the film, citing a need to make the film easy for American audiences to understand, but the director refused, so it has been released in only a few American theatres and on Video on Demand. This is complete bullshit. It is a foreign film (though primarily in English), but it is in no way inaccessible to a Western audience. The Weinstein Company simply fears an intelligent, thought-provoking blockbuster rife with metaphor and allegory. It’s a bleak film that says some dark things about humanity, but that comes with the dystopian territory. However, the film has been getting astoundingly good reviews, and word of mouth has been ensuring that people watch it.

I intend to be that word of mouth. Watch Snowpiercer. It’s a brilliant film – truly one of the best of the year.

A Most Wanted Man

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 26th, 2014 No comments

A Most Wanted Man, 2014, UK/USA/Germany

A Most Wanted Man is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last completed role. Hoffman’s death is a huge loss – while I never really followed his work, I always appreciated him as an actor. He was consistently excellent in every role he played, and his performance as Günther Bachmann is no exception.

Günther runs an anti-terrorism team of spies in Hamburg, which has seen an increase in intelligence activity following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their attention is turned on Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has recently arrived in Hamburg, and is flagged as a terrorist. Günther’s supervisor wants him to arrest him immediately, but he sees the opportunity to catch bigger fish in the sea using Issa. Issa gets in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a young human rights lawyer to see about getting asylum, and a large inheritance left to him by his father. They go through Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a sketchy banker with a connection to Issa’s father.

The film is a slow burn; the plot slowly unravels over the film’s two hour runtime. In many respects, it reminded me of author John le Carré’s last book-to-film adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I actually greatly preferred A Most Wanted Man to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – it’s ultimately a bit more compelling, though both films feature a strong cast. Director Anton Corbijn does a wonderful job adapting the source material.

As stated, Hoffman is fantastic as the heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking, and vaguely depressing Günther. Günther is passionate about his job, but clashes with his supervisor and the CIA over professional tactics. And, when you’re in the spy business, these differences of opinion are serious business. Robin Wright plays a CIA agent who uses her influence to give him 72 hours to get the information he needs, and her performance was excellent, as well.

McAdams and Dafoe fail to nail down the German accent effectively, which is a shame, given Hoffman’s spectacular performance in that respect. I was a little annoyed, in fact, because German actors Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss are stuck in background roles when they cast two American actors as German characters. Could they have not cast two German actors in those parts? It’s unfortunate that an actor as talented as Brühl was essentially relegated to ‘the dude wearing headphones’.

That being said, I did really enjoy the film overall. It’s interesting and thought-provoking, given the politics of our time, and the realities of terrorism. It’s in theatres now (though apparently in limited release, so I’m surprised it was playing here in Winnipeg!).

Begin Again

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Begin Again, 2013, USA

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is having the worst day of his life. He’s just been fired from the record label he co-founded and his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener) are angry with him. He stumbles into a bar and hears Gretta (Keira Knightley) sing a song that mesmerizes him. Little does he know that Gretta is also having the worst day of her life. He offers to make an album with her, and after sleeping on it, she agrees. The album is produced outdoors, making use of the natural noise of New York City. Through this process, Dan and Gretta become close, and discover what they want in life.

The film was written and directed by John Carney, who also wrote and directed the wonderful film, Once. Like Once, Begin Again is a musical, though it feels a little larger in scope than the very intimate Once. That’s not a bad thing, because Begin Again is a warm and touching film about being true to yourself and discovering your path in life.

Knightley and Ruffalo have wonderful chemistry on-screen. And who knew Knightley could sing so beautifully?! She is a lovely singer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ruffalo as a contender during next year’s award season – his performance was the broken down and beaten-up Dan was inspirational work. He was just excellent.

Adam Levine makes his acting debut in the film, and he wasn’t terrible, but he was one of the weaker links in the film. He was essentially playing a version of himself. They needed someone who could sing, and they likely wanted someone who had experience performing on-stage as a musician, so I understood why they casted him in the role. Rapper CeeLo Green also has a role in the film as a recording artist made famous by Dan. I’m glad the role was essentially a cameo, because his acting was cringe-worthy. He was also basically playing himself, but it was painfully awkward and uncomfortable to watch him attempt to act. He should definitely stick to rapping.

It is essential for a musical to have a catchy soundtrack, and the songs in Begin Again were wonderful. I’m expecting “Lost Stars” to receive award nominations at the very least – but there were a few other songs that could receive recognition as well. I’ll be purchasing the soundtrack, for sure.

Begin Again is excellent, and very much worth seeing. It’s in theatres now.

Like Father, Like Son

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
July 19th, 2014 No comments

Like Father, Like Son, 2013, Japan

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono) are parents of six-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota is a traditional Japanese father: he’s strict, and sets a rigid schedule for his son to follow. They get a phone call from the hospital Keita was born at and receive devastating news: a mistake was made at the hospital and Keita is not their biological son. Ryota and Midori meet the parents of their biological son shortly thereafter. Yukari (Yôko Maki) and Yudai (Rirî Furankî) live in a village and are poor, compared to the successful Ryota and Midori. Yukari and Yudai’s son, Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) is the biological son of Ryota and Midori. Both families must come together and decide whether to switch their sons, or continue raising the sons they brought home from the hospital.

Like Father, Like Son is a story of contrast. One family is wealthy; the other is poor. However, Yukari is a warm and affectionate father who values spending time with his children over working hard to make ends meet; the exact opposite of Ryota. Ryota is cold, and looks down on the other family, especially Yukari, over what he perceives to be flaws in their parenting styles.

The film is a moving one, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, despite having a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Ryota is a flawed character, and it’s difficult to like him, or, sometimes, even understand why he is doing what he is doing. Part of it is certainly a difference in culture: Ryota represents very traditional Japanese values. But, I would argue that his character is also a critique of the mindset that he represents. Yukari and Yudai were portrayed in a far more positive light, in my opinion, and the film ultimately shows Ryota’s growth as a human being.

I read that the film is being remade for an American audience. I can’t see it working – again, for cultural reasons. In my mind, there’s no question what I would do were I in this situation: I’d never consider swapping a child I’d raised for six years. I get the sense that most in my culture would share my point of view, and as the main plot concerns the question of whether such a swap should take place, I just don’t see it working. Which brings up another point: why can’t English-speaking audiences just watch it with subtitles? The film was wonderfully moving, and it was an interesting glimpse into another country’s culture. This need to constantly remake foreign films drives me up the wall, because I’d like to see people seeking out the original film instead. Then again, I suppose it’s easy for me to talk, as I’ve never had any trouble reading subtitles and following subtitled films – almost 50% of the films I’ve watched this year have been foreign films.

Like Father, Like Son is available to rent off iTunes.

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No Regrets

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 16th, 2014 No comments

No Regrets, 2001, Germany

Having just graduated high school, Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is still pining for his classmate, Luca (Jessica Schwartz). Daniel has avoided dating, saving himself for Luca, based on something she told him at a camping trip they took years before. He attempts to woo Luca using increasingly terrible love advice from his friend Dennis (Denis Moschitto). After a stunt to get her attention goes wrong, Luca goes to America for three weeks and Daniel begins doing community service work under the watchful eye of Anna (Marie-Lou Sellem). Anna is older, and makes no secret of her affection for Daniel. But Daniel finds himself torn between Anna, and his ongoing love for Luca.

I found the film very interesting, from a cultural standpoint. In North America, films about teenagers and sex are generally comedies, whereas this film was more of a drama, despite featuring a few comedic moments. In my experience, most North American films about young people discovering and having sex are comedies. What does this say about our culture? That the notion of young people discovering sex for the first time is so taboo that it is a topic that must be played for laughs? After I watched the film, I did a lot of thinking and the only American film I could think of that even touched on the idea of teens and sex in a serious manner was the film Kids, which is one of the darkest and most depressing films I’ve ever watched.

So, needless to say, I appreciated the hell out of the fact that the film looked at the troubles of youth, and the exploration of sex in a serious way, without being especially depressing, either.

Daniel is a very flawed protagonist: he’s very much the typical 19-year-old; he’s selfish, makes idiotic choices, and has some pretty flawed ideas about love, sex, and relationships. But he remains fairly likable, and all of that credit goes to Brühl, who is an absolute genius at making you root for characters you might otherwise dislike. I also thought Sellem was wonderful as Anna, who is easily the most sympathetic character in the film. I loved every scene she shared with Brühl.

Throughout the film, Daniel breaks the fourth wall numerous times, providing commentary on his thoughts and experiences directly to the audience. It was an interesting storytelling technique and I quite enjoyed it. In many ways, it reminded me of the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I got the sense that breaking the fourth wall as they did was a direct homage to that film.

It took a bit of effort to track down a copy of No Regrets. I ended up finding it on Amazon.co.uk under its German title, Nichts bereuen.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4.5
July 13th, 2014 No comments

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014, USA

Ten years after the events of the first film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is leading a peaceful life in the forest with his wife (Judy Greer), teenage son (Nick Thurston), and newborn. He is the leader of a colony of apes, and is close friends with Koba (Toby Kebbell), who serves as a close adviser. A small group of humans have an encounter with some apes in the forest, and Caesar chases them away, before going to the humans’ colony and intimidating them. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is one of the humans, and is amazed by Caesar’s ability to speak, and wants to meet with the apes in order to gain access to a hydro dam that is key to returning power to the city. The leader of his colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), reluctantly gives him 3 days for his mission, but holds extremist views against the apes and blames them for the virus that has killed off most of mankind.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes builds on the story its predecessor told, and is actually the better film overall (which is saying something!). It features rich and wonderful characters, both human and ape, and it’s a surprisingly thought-provoking story about setting differences aside, conflict, and what it means to be a leader.

I was blown away by the acting: Oldman has a reasonably small part, but in one scene of his, he managed to make me weep. He has such a presence throughout the story, despite his limited screen time. And Serkis is such a remarkable actor. I’ve been saying this for awhile, but it’s well overdue that motion capture performances be recognized with their own category at award ceremonies. There are now more than a few films a year that feature such work, and it’s time the actors get recognized for it. How difficult must it be to accurately portray the movements and sounds of an ape? Serkis (and Kebbell – and all of the motion-capture actors, in fact) portrayed the apes perfectly. I often forgot that it was the work of humans that I was watching, and not actual apes! That also speaks to the beauty of the CGI animation – it is truly some of the best work I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing how far animation has come in even ten years.

The apes communicate with each other primarily through sign language, which means subtitles are used through much of the film – something that is unusual for a blockbuster film. I was impressed that the filmmakers had the confidence to make this decision: I don’t believe it would have been realistic for the apes to be speaking fluent English to one another at this point in the film series’ timeline.

In a summer that has been a bit lighter on quality films than usual, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really stands out. It’s easily one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

In Tranzit

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 8th, 2014 No comments

In Tranzit, 2008, Russia/UK

This film, based on true events, is the story of a Russian transit camp run by women following World War II. The camp is meant to hold women on their way to Russian gulags, but they mistakenly receive a shipment of German POWs. Pavlov (John Malkovich) decides to leave the POWs in the camp, and orders the camp staff to gain the trust of the prisoners. In the group of approximately 50 prisoners, there are war criminals, including one who committed particularly heinous acts during the siege of Leningrad, and he orders Natalia, the camp doctor (Vera Farmiga) to be on the look out for him. Pavlov threatens to transfer her brain damaged husband (Evgeniy Mironov) should she fail. The prisoners in the camp struggle in the cold Russian winter, but slowly some members of the camp staff warm up to them. Natalia herself is attracted to Max (Thomas Kretschmann), who, along with Max’s associate, Klaus (Daniel Brühl), is held under suspicion by Pavlov.

I’d never heard this specific story prior to watching the film. I’d love to do some research about the actual story behind the film, because the idea of German POWs being guarded by female Russian guards is fascinating. The film doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the post-war period, or of the tremendous wrongs committed by some of the German soldiers during the war. In many respects, In Tranzit is a study of human nature. How would you react to being tasked with guarding soldiers whose countrymen were responsible for killing your families? And how do you find a war criminal who is lurking in the shadows under a false name?

Farmiga was absolutely wonderful as Natalia. Her character struggles to care for her disabled husband, and in many respects, acts as the moral centre of the film. I thought her Russian accent sounded quite good, as well. Malkovich commands the screen during his limited screen time. Pavlov is a man on a continuous power trip and Malkovich is appropriately menacing. Brühl plays a character unlike any I’ve seen him play, and he does fine work, along with Kretschmann.

In Tranzit is not a particularly fast moving film – it’s slow, but the strong characters and intriguing storyline are enough to keep you invested in it. I quite enjoyed it. While I don’t believe it’s a particularly well known film, it is available here in North America on Amazon (no need to purchase an imported copy!).

The Campaign

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
July 5th, 2014 No comments

The Campaign, 2012, USA

The Campaign satirizes contemporary American politics, and takes aim at everything from attack ads, debates, and the notion of posing with babies.

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the longtime congressman of District 14 in North Carolina. He’s running unopposed, and was heavily favoured to win until an affair becomes public through a crass voice mail Cam left on an answering machine. Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is convinced to run by the wealthy Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd). Little does he know, but the Motch brothers are looking to sell District 14 to China so they can build a sweatshop. Cam quickly grows desperate in light of a genuine challenger, and both parties turn to increasingly wacky tactics in order to win the election.

Corporate sponsorship and influence is a running theme in the film. It takes a damning look at campaigns being financed by corporations, even if the very premise of this film is a little ridiculous. I think that, despite the ridiculousness, The Campaign does have a lot to say about the nature of contemporary politics. A film like this one will appeal to a younger audience on the basis of the cast, and I think if young people can come away thinking about the problems there are with politics, then the film will have made a difference.

The film is undeniably crude and potentially offensive. In many cases, they go for the easy joke instead of a sharper, more intelligent joke, but that doesn’t surprise me. I did laugh quite a bit, and there were some truly hilarious moments. Ferrell is as outrageous as ever, as is Galifianakis. Both actors are playing to their type: Ferrell is the over-the-top asshole, and Galifianakis is the awkward, but harmless oddball. As an aside, I’d love to see Galifianakis in a role that is different from the ones he’s been pigeon-holed into over the last few years. The Hangover has done wonders for his career, but it has typecasted him in a serious way.

At times The Campaign does drag on, which is problematic as it is only about 88 minutes long. This is especially true towards the end, when I really found it struggled to hold my attention. But, when the jokes are landing, The Campaign is hilarious and worth watching.

The Campaign is available on Netflix.

Cargo

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 2nd, 2014 No comments

Cargo, 2006, Spain/UK/Sweden

Chris (Daniel Brühl), a brash young German traveler in Africa gets himself into trouble after trying to steal a bracelet from a merchant. After the police take his passport, Chris runs off and finds himself in a bar full of crew members of a ship. He sneaks onboard the rusty old cargo ship, and hides in the cargo hold, which holds cages full of smuggled birds. He’s discovered, and dragged in front of the captain (Peter Mullan), who reluctantly allows him to stay on board in the care of Baptist (Luis Tosar). The crew soon reveals itself to be hostile and even dangerous, and Baptist urges Chris to mind his own business for his own safety. But Chris insists on getting involved, and soon finds himself in a precarious situation when more stowaways are found.

The vast majority of the film takes place on the cargo ship, which sets a gloomy and chilly tone. It’s a fascinating set piece. There’s no privacy, and there’s no escaping the impending sense of doom. The crew members of the ship represent some of the darker aspects of humanity; on the ocean they’re completely on their own and maintain their own moral code aimed at protecting their home from intruders at all costs.

I found the premise of the film to be very interesting, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before. It’s not a horror film per se, but it almost feels like one much of the time. It’s a commentary on isolation, greed, and the loss of humanity. As a film, it’s an unrelentingly dark depiction of humanity.

Mullan was excellent as the captain, a man who may be the worst of them all, but who maintains an odd sort of affection for Chris. And Brühl was wonderful as Chris. He manages to make Chris likable, despite his thoroughly unlikable introduction in the opening moments of the film. Chris is arrogant, and rather stupid at times, but you can’t help but sympathize with him. Despite his flaws, Chris is a man who is desperate to get home safely, and has found himself in over his head on the boat from hell. Gary Lewis has a supporting role as an emotionally traumatized crew member named Herman, and I wish his part had been larger. His character was fascinating.

Cargo is almost entirely in English, however it is not easy to find a copy of it, as it was never released in North America. You can order an import copy from the UK, which is what I ended up having to do!

They Came Together

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 1.5
June 29th, 2014 1 comment

They Came Together, 2014, USA

They Came Together is a satire of romantic comedies. Director and writer David Wain has tried to inset every single romantic comedy trope into the film, with limited success.

Molly (Amy Poehler), and Joel (Paul Rudd) are telling the story of how they met to their friends over dinner. At first, they loathe each other, but slowly they begin to fall for each other. However, there are obstacles in their relationship, notably the fact that Joel works for a corporate candy company that is trying to put Molly’s independent candy shop out of business.

They Came Together just doesn’t work. It’s impossible to make a satire of a genre that has essentially become self-satire at this point. There are a few excellent romantic comedies out there, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Instead of being clever, They Came Together too often relies on crass sexual jokes in an attempt to be edgy. Ooh, a rude French server with a pole in his ass – how clever! There are a few funny moments, but they are few and far between. In fact, the only scene I’d say is worth watching is the climax of the film, which features a very funny cameo.

I love both Poehler and Rudd, so it’s a shame to see them in a film that was this genuinely terrible. I got the sense that they understood the intention of the film, and had high hopes for it, but that they were screwed over at some point during the filmmaking process. Rudd plays his role with this schmaltzy, over-the-top eagerness, and Poehler is gleefully absurd. At first it’s quite funny, but by minute ten of the film, it has grown stale.

It is absolutely possible to poke fun at romantic comedies, but I don’t believe a full-length movie is the way to go. Had this premise been turned into an SNL sketch instead, I think it would have been hilarious. Instead, as trope after trope gets “mocked”, you begin to feel like they’re being referenced for the sake of being referenced. There’s no witty commentary – instead it’s more like “Hey, they work at rival companies, because that’s what happens in all romantic comedies! Haha!”. Satire is meant to be clever – this is not clever in any sense of the word.

They Came Together is currently in limited release in theatres. I saw that it was available to rent on Apple TV, so, for the sake of frugality, I rented it on there instead of waiting to see it in theatres. I’m so grateful I didn’t pay money to see this in a theatre, but I wish I hadn’t bothered at all. It’s 90 minutes of my life that I will never get back, and I strongly urge you to stay as far away from this movie as you can.

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