Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New(ish) Releases: Snowpiercer (2014) & Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Bong, Joon-ho

Sometimes, we could all use a flashy, violent allegory for the world's social ills. Snowpiercer gives it to us.

With a narrative and technique that can border on acid-trippy at times, Snowpiercer provides a fast-moving and creative commentary on class divisions. Playing the part of "the world" is a massive train, known in fact as "The World Train," which is perpetually transporting the few hundred remaining humans around an Earth which has been plunged into an unlivable Ice Age by a botched attempt to cure global warming.

This, of course, is a pretty big jump to make, as far as suspension of disbelief is concerned. But the explanation is satisfying enough, if not exactly the best science you'll find in science fiction. Once you can accept that, then the film grows more interesting as the plot builds. The primary story follows Curtis, a man who is old enough to remember life before the train, and who is relegated to the back section of it - the section designated for the lowest rung of train society. In th"the foot," as it's called, the people are treated as little better than herd animals, where they are fed only gelatinous protein bars and forced to suffer regular abuse.

Curtis and a handful of others from the rear mount a revolt towards the front of the train, in an attempt to find better treatment, as well as some children who have been taken from the rear. As the revolutionaries grit out their struggle forwards, the successive trains become both more luxurious and more horrifying and bizarre.

This is one of the earliest obstacles that Curtis and his rebels
encounter on their revolution towards the front of the train.
Things only get wilder and more insane as they go.
These basic concepts make for a solid framework, but it's a framework that could easily have been mishandled and resulted in a far weaker film. Not so, thanks to director Joon-ho Bong and the other writers. While there are certainly some elements that are strange merely for strangeness' sake, most of the oddities or seeming non-sequiters do represent grander ideas. These make for some curious food for thought, and many of the outlandish questions that we viewers may ask ourselves are, in fact, answered by movie's end.

The cast is excellent, featuring U.S. and British A-listers such as John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and even Chris Evans (far better known as Captain America). The non-English speaking actors are just as good, with an especially great turn by Kang-ho Song. There's a great balance between manic caricature and appropriate gravity, which seems tough for so stylish a picture.

Snowpiercer is nothing if not gutsy. It might not surprise astute viewers as much as it thinks it should, but any lack of surprise from attempted plot twists are made up for by the execution of the tale. It tries a lot of things, and though some of them fall a bit short of the mark, most of them fly true and are sure to entertain.

You won't see most movie vampires doing this.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

From the modern purveyor of cinematic cool, we get a very "Jarmusch" vampire movie. I even hesitate to use the director's name as an adjective, given that his style is not easy to pin down, except that his films are all very confident, more than a little off-beat, and always take an interesting approach to well-worn cinematic story conventions. Only Lovers Left Alive keeps this tradition well alive. With the undead.

You will most likely not enjoy this film if you are a fan of the following: Anne Rice vampire tales, The Twilight Saga, or any vampire stories that rely on the gothic romantic, bloodier, more carnal aspects of the mythical creatures of the night. Only Lovers assumes that you are aware of the basic mythology of vampires, and it narrows its focus to two of their kind - Eve and Adam, who may, as their names imply, be literally thousands of years old. The two are married, and yet they live thousands of miles apart, Eve in Morocco and Adam in Detroit. When Eve receives a call from her husband, she senses that he is going through one of his periodic and deep bout of melancholy over the human race, and she heads over the Atlantic (on red-eye flights, of course) to see him.

The interactions between Adam and Eve are hypnotic in many ways. Their supernatural powers are rarely displayed directly, and we are often left to marvel over their implied abilities. There are more than a few of the cliched references to famous historical people who the two have known over their millenia, but they are still amusing. What is most powerful is what they have seen and the perspectives that they have. Having observed human behavior for countless generations, the pair have alternating respect, anger, despair, and love for people. And one gets the sense that Jarmusch actually captured the attitudes of such creatures with incredible accuracy, and makes them endearing to boot. Adam is eminently musical, constantly composing and performing dark and alluring rock music to sooth himself. Eve consumes books at lightning speed, gaining an almost sexual satisfaction from drinking in the endless perspectives of humans. Undead they may be, but in most ways they do more living than people. And Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (yes, her again) play every subtlety perfectly.

The title pair can make you envious of their wisdom and love
for each other, but just as sad for the sorrow at the human
condition which they have witnessed for so long.
While much of the movie is far slower than your typical vampire movie, with Eve and Adam lounging around Adam's dilapidated and remote Detroit home, there are moments of horror and action. Much of the dynamic energy is provided when Eve's "sister" arrives from California, bringing her hedonistic impishness along to spoil Adam and Eve's serene contemplation. Blood is let, arguments are had, and there is some vampire-on-vampire verbal abuse. These moments keep things lively enough, but I found myself just as relieved as Adam when the nuisance of his sister-in-law was banished.

Most definitely not your typical vampire movie, but certainly a great addition to the historical canon of such films. I'm sure plenty of horror film aficionados will despise the measured pace and meditative tone of the movie, but those who are willing to meet the characters halfway are bound to be rewarded.