I have been severely lax this summer in keeping up with my reviews – a paucity due, in my mind at least, to a combination of increased effort put into my running diary of my summer in Maine (expect one more entry wrapping up my experience with the wonderful folks at Northeast Historic Film) and a general desire these past few months to completely turn off my brain whenever possible. It hasn’t helped that, frankly, I found most of this summer’s big-ticket offerings uninspired: solid and entertaining perhaps, but generally unworthy of extended discussion. There were exceptions of course (more on that in a minute), but getting back within striking distance of New York’s fabulous film scene is really what’s got the gears grinding again.
To limit this already overlong introduction, the point is that I’ve got a severe backlog of films to write about and no better time than now, before the semester starts, in which to do so. My thoughts might be slightly curtailed here just to keep things moving along, but feel free to chime in with some comments and we’ll see if we can get a discussion going! First up, a sci-fi double-header.
There’s a certain trend running through contemporary cinema that I like to call the New Nihilism. It’s not a movement bound by national or aesthetic loyalties – the primary examples I can think of come from filmmakers from Denmark to New Mexico, from art-house bonanzas to Netflix favorites – the unifying factor is a suggestion, whether overt or insinuated, that humanity might be better off at this point if we just hit the self-destruct button. Global annihilation is nothing new (Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay have been merrily blowing up international landmarks for 20 years now), but it’s strangely troubling to me to see the particular good-riddance attitude of Lars Von Trier seeping into even mainstream blockbusters.
Not that Bong Joon-ho’s bizarro sci-fi/action mash-up “Snowpiercer” is a mainstream blockbuster – even though he’s working for the first time in the English language and has gathered a host of recognizable Hollywood actors for the occasion, the idiosyncratic sense of genre that Bong brought to his works in Korea (“The Host,” “Memories of Murder,” “Mother”) is still firmly in place. Playing at times like a live-action adaptation of a lost attempt by Frank Miller at anime, “Snowpiercer” bounds between dark comedy and dark… just, dark. The class warfare allegory is neither subtle nor especially insightful, and the film’s screenplay (co-written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, from the graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette) puts undue weight on a monologue-heavy third act, but the ornaments hung on this tree are so shiny that one’s attention, and delight, is quite easily directed elsewhere.
The first and foremost thing in the film’s favor is its design: though it bears significant influence from the similar dystopian future societies of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” the train-bound, global-ice-age setting gives “Snowpiercer” a fascinating set of limitations. As Chris Evans and his motley crew of tail-end rabble make their way forward to seize control of the engine from the front-end high-rollers, each new car becomes a new challenge: not just for the upstart rebellion, but the director’s imagination. Aquarium, classroom, spa, prison – the function and form of every room becomes its own wonder.
The claustrophobic atmosphere of the train also gives the actors considerably more to do than they might in your typical action flick, as characters from both sides of the struggle bump and rattle against each other, often violently. The performances range from the earnest (Evans, unable, ultimately to the film’s detriment, to shed the all-American decency that makes him a great Steve Rogers) to the downright silly (Tilda Swinton and Allison Pill, both marvelous), but the fierce commitment of all involved to the bit somehow makes this ungainly assortment work. Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung, the leading father and daughter from Bong’s “The Host,” return in similar roles here, directly walking and bolstering the fine tonal balance between irreverence and sincerity that makes Bong’s films stand out.
With a film this sly and unpredictable, it’s nearly impossible to provide an ending that’s “satisfying” in any traditional sense, and so “Snowpiercer” clatters and stutters to its less-than-inevitable conclusion. If that doesn’t sound like a compliment, I’m not sure whether it is either; your ultimate opinion on the film may lie in your general feelings toward the New Nihilism. As a genre DJ, Bong remains an elite talent; as social commentator I find his results more mixed.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars
Guardians of the Galaxy
I don’t know if it’s the polarization of acceptable responses brought on by the Age of Hype, or some deep-seeded personal drive toward perversity and contrarianism, but Marvel is turning me into a killjoy. I don’t like being the crotchety old man berating children from the porch, especially since the children in this metaphor are generally mild-mannered and well-intentioned: Marvel Studios has raised the action blockbuster to a level of consistent entertainment for which Hollywood has been searching for a couple decades, and they should be complimented for that. At the same time, I don’t order a Coke and come back saying it tastes like a fine Scottish malt, if you see what I’m saying.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a slick, smooth ride, a propulsive sci-fi adventure with a good ear for a one-liner. It’s notable among Marvel’s Phase 2 offerings to date for bearing the actual, personal stamp of its director; while “Thor: The Dark World” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” plodded under the restrained visual sense of former TV directors like Alan Taylor and the Russo brothers, James Gunn treats “Guardians” as more than just an expanded budget, and his fondness for bright colors and angles beyond the standard shot-reverse shot makes this film stand out among the brown-on-black Nolan copycats.
It also confirms, now that we’ve moved to a completely new sector of the Marvel universe, the studio’s savvy casting ability. Not many people would’ve seen Chris Pratt on “Parks & Recreation” and seen a leading man in the making, but Pratt has an inherent likability that keeps the audience on his side, even when his characterization errs on the side of asshole. The trend of outperforming thin material is true for more or less the whole cast, from Zoe Saldana’s Gamora (a hard-ass space assassin prone to bits of helplessness and romantic swooning at moments convenient for Pratt’s Star-Lord), Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon (the quippy bounty hunter, trying too hard to be Han Solo in a movie that already has two or three Han Solos), and Lee Pace’s villainous Ronan (who somehow manages to emote under five layers of mascara and a complete lack of character motivation). Vin Diesel, voicing the walking arboretum Groot, gets more laughs out of repetition than I would’ve thought possible, but the standout, shockingly, might be WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dave Batista as the hulking, brooding Drax: Batista’s comic timing is unexpectedly excellent, and he might be the only member of the cast actively resisting the instinct to wink at the audience every five minutes.
This latter trend is indicative of my biggest problem with “Guardians:” Gunn and company want to have their cake and eat it too, enlivening a touching story of friendship with wit and sarcasm. That is the Joss Whedon formula, and the Marvel template since “The Avengers.” But Gunn is not Whedon (few people are) and what ends up happening in “Guardians” is that any moment of emotional development is almost immediately undercut with irony, fan-service, and hilariously impermanent death, lest we be troubled for even a minute that we might lose a beloved character.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” desperately wants to be a “Star Wars” for a new generation, but it’s missing the sincere story-telling that was always at the heart of George Lucas’ series. It’s a well-constructed film – even the typical VFX-riddled third act does a better job than, say, “The Winter Soldier” of keeping sight of its characters among the explosions – but it’s cloy. The two best Marvel films – for my money, “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” – succeed because they don’t feel like they’re holding back for something EVEN BIGGER on the horizon. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a solid introduction to an intriguing world, but I’d rather see it treated as self-contained than teased as just a piece of a puzzle.
Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars