Reviews: Snowpiercer and Guardians of the Galaxy

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

For Your Consideration: Aug. 1, 2014

It’s been about six months, which must mean it’s time for Marvel to crash the box-office party again. The powerhouse studio is taking its biggest quote unquote “risk” with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a property that was barely known in the mainstream until they cast Vin Diesel as a talking tree. But curiosity over brand loyalty and the new Hollywood business model aside, I’ve found myself more excited and eager for “Guardians” than “Captain America 2: The Released-in-Early-Spring-Because-The-Money-Was-Just-Sitting-There Soldier” or “Thor 2: Still Thor.” Why? Was it the tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign, which promises that mayyyybe this Marvel entry will have a little more self-aware silliness? Was it the actually quite savvy choice of James Gunn, cult genre favorite, as director for a massive blockbuster?

I have realized that no, this goes back deeper: to my personal love for Ethan Edwards and Wyatt Earp and Harmonica. Yes, it always comes back to Westerns, and I’m getting an unmistakable Space Western vibe from Chris Pratt’s cosmic gunslinger and his band of alien outlaws. They don’t call it “the final frontier” for nothing – the Space Western is a proud, under-appreciated tradition that “Guardians” might just help revive (“Cowboys and Aliens” certainly did us no favors). Sometimes sci-fi and Westerns go so well together you don’t even notice – so this week, to put “Guardians” in the proper context, we’re considering three films that laid the cinematic space railroad for this runaway box office train.

I know that was a labored metaphor, just shut up and move on.

– Ethan

“Aliens” (1986)

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton

Available to rent or buy on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Confused? “Aliens” is a sci-fi/action hybrid you say? Well what do you call it when a homesteader settlement on the edge of civilization is massacred by an unknown Other, leaving an outmatched troop of rescuers to navigate unfamiliar and dangerous territory? Because I call that a Western. Just replace those problematic Native American portrayals with uncontroversial, terrifying aliens, the cavalry with space marines, and John Wayne with Sigourney Weaver, and we’re set. We really shouldn’t have been so surprised when the narrative of “Avatar” boiled down to “Dances With Wolves” with blue people – it’s obvious that James Cameron has had at least one eye on the frontier since the start.

– Ethan

“Space Jam” (1996)

Cast: Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Danny DeVito

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

I’ve often wondered what inspired Warner Brothers to send Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to space together, or why NBA stars like Charles Barkley and Larry Bird agreed to it, but whatever the stroke of inspiration, it was one of genius. Almost 20 years later, “Space Jam” has become a cult classic, especially beloved of ‘90s kids and accessible to all ages and generations. The Looney Tunes find themselves besieged by a group of criminal aliens, the Nerdlucks (whose mafioso boss is delightfully voiced by Danny DeVito). To win their freedom from these outlanders, Bugs and friends challenge the short, not-so-bright aliens to a game of basketball. Unfortunately for them—and for the NBA—the Nerdlucks steal the talent (and the physique) of the game’s top stars, so that the Looney Tunes, in desperation, turn to lone hero Michael Jordan, then plying his trade in baseball. Jordan is funny and charismatic, at ease with his cartoon co-stars, while the Looney Tunes bring a star-studded cast featuring all the classic favorites. If all that’s not enough, even Bill Murray shows up. It’s a sports movie and cartoon in one (Editor’s note: with just a splash of “Magnificent Seven!”), the theme song will forever echo in your head, and a trip to outer space never looked so appealing.

– Elaine

“Serenity” (2005)

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher

Available streaming on Netflix, or to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes

It’s fairly impossible to discuss this genre anymore without bringing up Joss Whedon’s ill-fated TV show “Firefly.” Thanks to its second life on Netflix, “Firefly” and its cinematic follow-up/wrap-up “Serenity” probably has the biggest Space Western-fanboy following this side of “Star Wars” – but don’t let the rabid Comic-Con-goers cloud what actually makes the series great. It’s not Summer Glau beating up everyone, nor even Whedon’s trademark quippy dialogue: it’s the delicate mash-up of genre and tone, with the outer reaches of the galaxy, like the Old West before it, portrayed in equal measure as a place of swashbuckling adventure and brutal violence, of morality tested in a world where morality might mean nothing at all.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: April 4, 2014

Have you already been to see “Captain America: The Winter Soldier?” Have you seen it twice? Don’t snigger, apparently our midnight showings now start at 8 pm, so that’s actually a thing that could happen. But for those who like their patriotism with a little less bombast, it’s possible that the latest Marvel super-buster (I feel like we need a new word for these mega-franchises that automatically generate $300 million or more – submissions welcome!) isn’t high on the priority viewing list. So this week we’re offering a smorgasbord of alternative jingoism: films that put America right up front in the title, but but maybe don’t immediately follow it with a string of explosions.

– Ethan

American Graffiti (1973)

Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant or on disc from Netflix

Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, a very young Harrison Ford

There’s some sick cosmic joke in the fact that the man who invented not one but two major strains of American cinema – the sci-fi/franchise blockbuster and the American indie film about teenagers wandering around on a single day or night, not doing anything in particular and talking about sex and stuff – also came up with Jar Jar Binks. But long before he succumbed to the Dark Side of VFX, George Lucas made “American Graffiti,” a charming one-last-night take on adolescence that became the model for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and all the rest. So thoroughly retro as to basically be a historical artifact, Lucas recreated the early 60’s with the precision of intense nostalgia. He’s assisted mightily by the underrated performances of Dreyfuss and Howard, who subvert the gee-willikers innocence of that era’s image with just the right touch of liberated 70’s anarchy.

– Ethan

American Dream (1990)

Streaming on Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant, available on disc from Netflix

Barbara Kopple won an Oscar in 1976 for her searing documentary of a rural mining town racked by company-on-union violence, “Harlan County USA.” She collected a second, appropriately, for “American Dream,” which plays like something of a companion piece to the earlier film. Intrigued by the plight of a union threatening to go on strike at a meatpacking plant in Minnesota, Kopple filmed in the town for almost two years, watching as the workers’ dreams of improved wages turned into a lockout nightmare during the nation’s most hostile era toward labor unions since the 1930’s. Focused on the tensions and emotions between the individuals behind the strike, Kopple remains sympathetic while never losing sight of the flaws and ambiguities in the workers’ aspirations.

– Ethan

In America (2002)

Available to rent/buy streaming from Amazon Instant or on disc from Netflix

Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou

Irish director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical story of immigrant life in New York City is shamefully sentimental, but so touchingly and gracefully sincere it’s hard to be annoyed. A lot of that has to do with the superb cast, the adult trio of Morton, Considine and Hounsou in particular, reaching out beyond easy stereotypes to create strikingly rounded characters, flawed and utterly individual. There’s much emotional trauma to sort through (perhaps an overload), but it’s handled so unassumingly by Sheridan’s gentle direction that you’ll still walk away charmed and hopeful.

– Ethan