I LOVED reading your review of This is 40, Glenn. Especially as right before choosing This is 40 on OnDemand, I'd been watching Schindler's List on Sundance (and have to admit I had to turn it off to look for lighter fare) ! LOL in light of what you wrote.
Joon-Ho Bong, the South Korean maverick behind such fantastically visual films as THE HOST and MOTHER works in the English language for the first time. SNOWPIERCER is the dystopian, audacious, crazy-pants result. Many said THE HOST was LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE meets GODZILLA, well SNOWPIERCER is a RUNAWAY TRAIN/BRAZIL/TRUMAN SHOW/1984/HUNGER GAMES/MAD MAX/DAS BOOT mashup with sprinkles of POSEIDON ADVENTURE and TITANIC on top, just because...and even with all of these influences, his singular, absurd voice shines through.
Set 17 years in the future, an attempt to stave off global warming backfires, rendering Earth uninhabitable. Its only survivors are aboard the titular train, circling the globe year after year, unable to stop its "sacred engine" lest they all perish. The veritable one percenters live in luxury in the front of the train, while in steerage, a revolt is brewing amongst its starving masses. Leading it is Curtis (Chris Evans, hardened and powerful), an everyman with a guilty past who enlists the aid of his trusty sidekick Edgar (BILLY ELLIOT'S Jamie Bell), a fiercely protective mother (Octavia Spencer) and a wise sage, Gilliam (an homage to Terry Gilliam and played by 1984's lead John Hurt). Overthrowing the train means getting past armed militia and a stern spokesperson for the mysterious designer. Tilda Swinton, channeling a kabuki interpretation of Margaret Thatcher, is the cartoonish obstacle with her coke bottle glasses and prominent overbite. Her speeches are filled with the not-at-all disguised vitriol of a politician who can no longer relate to the masses.
Joining our ragtag troupe are Joon-Ho's mainstays, the wonderful Song Kang-ho and Ko A-sung as a drugged-out security expert and his loopy daughter. As they push their way from car to car with the hope of killing Wilford, the creator, and taking over the train, much is revealed as if one were methodically peeling back an onion. Joon-Ho co-wrote the film with BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD's Kelly Masterson, and together they've thrown in everything, as if this were their last film. I don't suspect it will come to that.
After a visceral first act in which limbs are frozen then amputated and the poor proles subsist on black, gelatinous protein bars of vile origins, the film shifts tone constantly. Bloody and violent one moment, and then outrageously silly the next, its self-importance and kitschiness sometimes make for unlikely bedfellows. There's a spectacularly staged scene between Evans and his pursuer, played menacingly by 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS' Vlad Ivanov, in which the train rounds a bend, allowing each a shot at each other. It feels like a classic western shoot-em-up but with a lush, driving score by Marco Beltrami. A late scene in an elementary classroom veers the film off into ALICE IN WONDERLAND territory with its bright colors and comic performance by Alison Pill hiding something much darker. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong and Production Designer Ondrej Nekvasil have a field day with the endlessly varied looks of the film, from its dark steampunk aesthetic to a more vivid, luxurious feel as our cast makes its way through the train. Like any great disaster movie, people die frequently and the action set pieces all have their own distinct tone. One is set in complete darkness, with one side wearing night vision glasses, while another utilizes slow motion to achieve an epic, martial arts quality.
I won't spoil the story, but this is nutty, flawed, and unlike any cookie cutter action film out there. Its allegorical look at the haves vs. the have nots is nothing new, but its uniqueness is in the telling. The performances are quite good, despite being all over the place. In fact, ALL OVER THE PLACE wouldn't be a bad alternate title! See it before it derails.
I'll confess I was one of those folks who was moved by the stage production of JERSEY BOYS. Its rags to rich debt portrayal of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was smart enough to put the music front and center, leaving its good-natured but hardly earth-shattering storyline slightly to the side. Sure, I found myself shedding a tear or two over some of the plot revelations and its undeniable nostalgic sweetness, but it's the music that really soared.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have adapted their stage version for the screen, and along with director Clint Eastwood, they got the whole thing backwards. The music, while still so great, feels like a bit of an afterthought tacked onto a largely boring dinner theatre-caliber presentation of showbiz clichés. Yet strangely, it's not a total loss.
Let's start with the good. John Lloyd Young, reprising his Tony Award-winning portrayal of Frankie Valli is a hugely sympathetic screen presence, and when he opens his mouth to sing, it's pure movie musical magic. Although he tends to glower a bit too much in the third act, there's a tender innocence he captures. The rest of his bandmates don't fare as well, letting things get a little too "goombah" at times, but Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, and Steve Buscemi lookalike Erich Bergen are each given a moment or two to shine. Lomenda in particular earns laughs with his ridiculous bass singing voice and during a speech where he gets a chance unleash some long-held resentment. Christopher Walken brings casual charm to his mobster Gyp DeCarlo and it's fun to recall that Walken achieved instant fame singing CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU in his Oscar-winning role in THE DEER HUNTER back in 1978. Mike Doyle is commanding in a fussy gay sorta way as Bob Crewe, who co-wrote many of the hits.
And what hits they were. SHERRY, WALK LIKE A MAN, BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY, DECEMBER 1963 (OH WHAT A NIGHT - given disappointingly short shrift in the film), RAGDOLL, and WHO LOVES YOU --- they're all classics and Young sounds like the real deal, but I found the music production lacked punch most of the time. It's as if all of the music is a half step slower than it needed to be, lacking percussive drive. Don't get me started on the ill-advised inclusion of MY EYES ADORED YOU, which Valli sings acapella to his sleeping young daughter. "My eyes adored you / Though I never laid a hand on you" - -huh? I don't know how the hint of child sexual abuse worked its way into the screenplay, but it sure creeped me out! Most of the musical numbers, as in the play, are performance-based until the misfire that is the backlot routine for the end credits. Hauling out the entire cast on what looks like the Warner Brothers New York Street set, Eastwood stages a Janet Jackson WHEN I THINK OF YOU-style moment, that, while joyous, made me think of the curtain call from MAMMA MIA. They both fall into that category of movie musicals they forgot to choreograph until the end. It culminates with all of our characters frozen (actually just standing really still) pointing to the heavens. Totally silly.
Like the play, our main characters break the fourth wall occasionally and speak directly to us. I enjoyed that here, as well as an early break-in scene when the boys were still scrounging to get by. Other plot points feel arbitrary, with minor characters introduced and then dropped with great frequency (Frankie's parents, his two other daughters, and so on). One standout, however, is Renee Marino. Making her feature debut, she starts out very strong as Frankie's wife Mary but eventually her character is given little to do but drink, look mean, and hurl her wedding ring across the room. It's as if a Scorsese-level high-road performance got dropped off at the corner of Joel Schumacher Avenue and Michael Bay Street, abandoned with a dying cell phone and a nickel in her pocket. I hope to see more of her. It would be fun to see her going toe-to-toe with Debi Mazar.
Most of the time, this film, while not inert, just doesn't seem to be all that interesting. But there's once noteworthy exception. The eleventh hour number, the aforementioned CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU, almost soars. Yes, it's a great song first and foremost, but Young really feels it, making us care for this guy and his long journey. Using restraint, however, he clips his notes during the big "I love you baby!" part of the song, where belting would have made this moment even better. A minor complaint for a scene which more than earns its place among movie musical moments. The horns, spoken about as a bucket list item for Valli throughout the movie, were pretty damn cool.
If only Eastwood had staged the film with a little more looseness. If only it had remembered to be a musical first and a biopic second. If only Taylor Hackford had been given this assignment. You heard me. Just take a look at his long-forgotten THE IDOLMAKER to see what he could have done with this bloated, boring, depressing but sometimes uplifting mess.
Pawel Pawlikowski is a Polish-born filmmaker living in England who returns to his native land for the astonishing IDA. Set in the early 60s in Communist-era Poland, IDA is the story of a young novitiate nun who is urged by her Mother Superior to meet her only living relative before taking her vows. Through her aunt, she discovers she is a Jew whose parents were killed during the Holocaust.
I initially resisted this film, assuming it would be a painful melodrama with grand emotions and a sweeping "important" score. Luckily I went, realizing within the first frame I was in the hands of a master of austere filmmaking on an equal par with the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose THREE COLORS: WHITE this slightly resembles, or with Michael Haneke, who achieved a similar tone with THE WHITE RIBBON.
Shooting in black and white and utilizing the typically obsolete square box Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1, (also used recently in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), IDA is a quiet yet powerful film about sacrifice, identity, desire, and despair. Sounds kicky and fun, right? If you're looking for challenging cinema, however, and have tired of Michael Bay's hyper-kinetic aesthetic, this film is richly rewarding.
It's star, Agata Trzebuchowska, is a newcomer and feminist hipster Pawlikowski met in a café at the request of a friend. She resisted the role initially, but thank goodness she took it. Resembling the love child of Claire Danes and Ellen Page, hers is a performance based almost entirely on enigmatic glances. It's not great acting, but it's memorably effective nonetheless.
On the opposite end of things is Agata Kulesza's galvanizing performance as Ida's world-weary aunt Wanda. Taken to drinking, picking up random men and needling her niece about her religious convictions, Wanda has a highly complex relationship with her past. After the War, during which she suffered many losses, she became a Communist party leader who would often send dissidents to an early grave. Currently a low-level judge, Wanda's collision with Ida forces her to deal with her life, sometimes playfully and sometimes with unbearable sorrow.
To describe the story makes it sound like a soap opera, but the filmmaker's approach is what makes this a standout. Every frame is carefully composed. Pawlikowski and his cinematographers, Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, often frame their characters cut off at the bottom of the screen, with wide open skies above them. At other times, they create rich tableaus augmented by gorgeous shadows and swaths of light. Imagine a Vermeer painting stripped of its color and you'll get the idea. The camera rarely is moved unless clearly motivated, forcing the viewer to live with the characters. Its final shot is startling because it's handheld, forcing the viewer to wonder why. The fact that you have to answer that question yourself speaks volumes about its director honoring his audience.
Offscreen space is just as important as what you see. The director doesn't always feel the need to cut to what a character is looking at, as he assumes you're smart enough to piece things together. Refreshing, no? One memorable example of that allows a character to walk offscreen and return to a bit of shocking action. You're in the hands of a filmmaker who truly understands the impact of each image he presents. Its no-frills approach extends to its use of sound, making the clanking of soup spoons or a Coltrane sax solo more startling than it would have been if it were competing with the myriad sounds we are used to hearing in studio blockbusters. Same goes for the dialogue. Rarely is it on the nose and rarely do its characters explain everything. A look. A glance. The way someone holds a cigarette. How two characters look off in the distance with very different points of view. A woman prays at a gravesite with an expanse of desolate Polish landscape behind her. Every frame is worthy.
Without spoiling anything, IDA unfolds like a mystery. Two very different lives come together and deeply affect each other. Although merely 80 minutes long, IDA has a measured pace. Some will be bored, others mesmerized. Count me among those who savored this tough yet fulfilling little gem.
Some films exist for nuance, for beautiful emotional expression, for shining a light on the truth of human existence, or for cinematic moments, transformative edits say from a man blowing out a match to a shot of the Arabian desert. Others are simply movies, and their agenda is clear....entertain the F*CK out of you, make you laugh out loud, and keep the gags coming at such a rapid fire pace that you won't mind if 3 out of 10 of them misfire.
22 JUMP STREET belongs squarely in the latter category. Michael Bacall and fellow writers Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, along with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have crafted an intensely self-reflective sequel, acutely, and sometimes smartly, aware of its own limitations. That the returns are diminishing is beside the point, because they tell you that every five minutes or so! Call it a post-meta-experience so upfront about its homoeroticism that it moves past any hints of homophobia to become the Grand Marshall of its own Gay Pride Parade.
The first film, 21 JUMP STREET, knew that any similarities to the long-forgotten TV series would kills its prospects at the box office, so it eschewed any seriousness for a wacky buddy comedy instead. There was great joy in discovering that Jonah Hill could carry a movie and that Channing Tatum had found his calling as a first-rate stooge. The non-stop rush of set pieces and pop culture references created a heady stew unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. Stupid me. I shouldn't have doubted Lord and Miller's abilities, because THE LEGO MOVIE continued in that vein.
While not quite as successful as those two movies, 22 JUMP STREET has enough ingredients to get a qualified rave. Hill once again plays an uncomfortable control freak with serious abandonment issues to the hilt, while Tatum proves he will do anything for a laugh, including a thrillingly terrible "homie" imitation in the opening scene. Charged with going undercover at a college to find a drug dealer (essentially and knowingly the same plot as the first except at a school of higher learning), the story is meaningless. The devil is in the details.
All of the veterans in the cast are given their moments, such as Ice Cube and Nick Offerman. There are, however, several newcomers worth mentioning. Wyatt Russell is particularly engaging as Tatum's out of control bromance partner at a fraternity. He may be a suspect in the case, but he brings so much charm to the film you secretly hope he's not culpable. Even without Hill in some scenes, Russell and Tatum make a great team on their own, trading thinly veiled fist-f*cking jokes and pornorific grunts. Another standout is Jillian Bell, all deadpan anger as a co-ed with a hilariously focused demeanor. Judging from her IMDB page, she's moving on up in the world, and rightly so. The Lucas Brothers handily steal every moment they're onscreen as twin dorm roommates across the hall from Tatum and Hill. When they finished each others' sentences, it was surprisingly electric, only to be followed by Tatum and Hill attempting the same and making me laugh even harder.
All told, this is a mess, almost a trainwreck, but it's aiming really low folks, so I'm giving it a pass. The blockbusters of the world are given VERY little time to produce their offspring, and this runny-nosed, dirt-encrusted child skins his knees every now and then, but gets right back up to try, try again.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON was a beautiful piece of animation and storytelling. One couldn't help but be reminded of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with its grandeur and emotional resonance. It was a tough act to follow, but Dean DeBlois, striking out on his own this time without his writing partner, Chris Sanders, has created another triumph...and this is coming from someone who has had it up to here (pointing to right below my mouth) with the glut of superhero and animated features hogging up all that precious mutiplex space.
Picking up several years from where the first film left off, we return to the people of Berk, where Hiccup (perfectly voiced by Jay Baruchel) is discovering life outside his village by exploring on the back of his dragon, Toothless. What they encounter sets the plot deliriously in motion. To reveal more would be unfair, as this is a lovely, complex tale, cramming in so much, it almost bursts at the seams, yet it stays grounded thanks to the emotionally engaging voice work. In addition to Baruchel, America Ferrara is once again a spunky, fun surprise as Hiccup's fellow warrior, Astrid. Kristen Wiig is wonderful comic relief as the deranged, man-crazy Ruffnut, and Cate Blanchett brings tremendous warmth to her role as a mysterious stranger.
It should surprise nobody that the sequel packs more dragons in than before. Despite the increased competition for attention, Toothless, however, still stands out as a fully-realized creature. The flying sequences soar almost as well as they did in AVATAR. The constant swoops, spins, and energy of these scenes were truly breathtaking. Impressive visual composition rules the day , and when things get dark...and they do...the lighting is haunting. Upping the ante from Hiccup losing his foot in the first, his loss here stings even harder. Taking a cue from FROZEN, there are terrifying spikes of ice.
If I had one minor quibble, it's that I wished DeBlois hadn't resorted to what's done to the poor sheep in the opening Dragon competition. A variation on a Harry Potter Quidditch match, the sequence does stand to make little children want to throw their ovine friends around and entrap them in nets...ok, I'm not giving kids enough credit...but it felt one level below Dwarf Tossing...and WOLF OF WALL STREET notwithstanding, nobody should laugh at that.
Having said that, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is, like its predecessor, the best piece of CGI animation this year. It allows its characters to be smart, think strategically, and solve problems without resorting to violence. We could use more of that in this world.