Snowpiercer

A train that chugs around the world with nowhere to go is an astute metaphor for Snowpiercer. In Bong Joon-ho’s fever dream of the near future, a countermeasure against global warming has made Siberia blanket the earth; the remnants of humanity, crammed into several dozen cars on a self-sustaining train, makes a yearly circuit around the globe. The train, which is called the Snowpiercer, was the brainchild of a crackpot billionaire named Wilford. It isn’t clear whether he had intended it to be a Noah’s ark all along or whether its construction just happened to coincide with the apocalypse, but the result is a case study in apartheid: the haves live near the engine and the have-nots bring up the rear. But what was it that the haves had? Were the groups segregated on a first-come-first-serve basis? Skin color isn’t a factor. Save for the imperious Wilford—who has claimed the engine as his throne room—an individual’s on-board status doesn’t appear to correlate with his former income level or earthly station: the first-class manifest includes Tilda Swinton as a yokel with an oik accent and false teeth, and a onetime violinist for the Boston Symphony is mixed in with the rabble. Money wouldn’t have much currency at the end of the world, but the hedonistic first-class passengers don’t seem to have paid their way in practical skills. If the film’s sympathies with Occupy Wall Street are to be taken seriously, this isn’t a small bone to pick; the invocation of the One Percent seems the result of fuzzy math, as those languishing in steerage appear to be the minority. Even Marx wouldn’t have given the plot-launching insurrection by the lower orders his imprimatur: with one grotesque exception, the train doesn’t run on the back of labor. Just about every review of this movie cautions you to take its political allegory with a grain of salt. I would suggest a quarry.

At the risk of sounding obvious, Boon has a vision, but it is strictly visual. Along with his co-writer Kelly Masterson—with whom he has adapted a French graphic novel—the director has some intriguing ideas that, in the conservative world of the entertainment industry, might pass for edgy; but he has little talent for integrating them. All of the foreshadowing, which imbues the whimsical design with an oracular tone, just ends up making the movie bottom-heavy; revelations sputter out like mad ravings, but, as in Oldboy, the absurdity and paranoia are justified by an overblown Christopher Nolan-like windup. Chris Evans, who is impressive as the rebel leader, gives a wallop of a monologue toward the end that might have been more effective earlier, when it would have clarified the goings on and given substance to the rebel cause. Bong and Masterson pick off big names and major characters with the ease of George R. R. Martin, but not the facility; some of the goners hadn’t enough opportunities to earn much grief for their loss, so the effect is just a jab at convention. Still, there are moments in which Boon proves himself as a top-notch visual storyteller. He takes advantage of the narrow-gauge width of these characters’ world; the whole movie has the effect of being shot with a fish-eye lens, but without the peripheral distortion. You have to take a cold shower to shrug it off. At one point, Evans and his sidekick Jamie Bell lie in two separate bunks but look squished like sardines. There’s an expressively distended sequence which sums up Evans’s choice between The Cause and its collateral in a simple but wrenching way—and it’s parodied moments later by Swinton. There are also excellently staged action-movie flourishes, like a witty shootout when the Snowpiercer is rounding a bend or a hide-and-seek sequence in a car full of saunas that may as well be trees in a wood. But these are effective set pieces, nothing more. Moments like Evans’s flicker of decision have a human gravity that Boon clearly wants to express, but he fails to inform his more idiosyncratic elements with pathos. The intended effect is 12 Monkeys, but the result is a cockeyed spoof like The Fifth Element.

Sure, I’d take this bizarro blockbuster over most Hollywood sequels; it’s something of a miracle that Harvey Weinstein bet on this pipe dream being a box-office success: a bona fide Bong hit. Snowpiercer isn’t mellow—doesn’t go down smoothly like the fine-tooled Edge of Tomorrow—but I think it’s a more interesting diversion rather than a superior work of art. The film is a masterpiece by proxy: Alison Pill is a Lynchian schoolteacher with a smile that seems detached from her face; Swinton goes haywire like the whorebot in Metropolis; John Hurt plays a beard-to-knees seer called Gilliam, in homage to the director of 12 Monkeys and Brazil; and music from the hotel band in The Shining gets piped in at one point like the anodyne tunes at Disneyworld. But the Kubrick reference—a signifier of the dryness of the upper crust—stuck in my craw because it diagnosed what’s wrong with this movie: Its “politics” aren’t rooted in the real world or history, but in second-hand notions spawned from pop culture that doesn’t really have anything to do politics. Even Brazil is only political in the sense that The Trial is, and Kafka had his politics assigned to him by a society that was reeling from totalitarian states that didn’t come about until after his death. Gilliam—the filmmaker—has an Ignatius J. Reilly side: He protests just about everything that’s happened since the Middle Ages. His ideal reality is just what that term implies—an oxymoron. Quixotic though this may be, it gives his work a temperament that Boon can only approximate, possibly because Gilliam’s fantasies aren’t as moored to specific current events as Boon’s appear to be. Boon’s flashes of brilliance get interrupted; life stutters by like it does for someone in a video game who can’t make it to the next level. The tart ominousness in Snowpiercer may prime you for a mystical revelation, but any insight it has just goes off the rails.

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Ida

Humanity is meted out in Ida, as if hope and happiness were going out of stock. Shot in standard—four-by-thee—ratio, and black-and-white, Paweł Pawlikowski’s film resembles the behind-the-wall hits of the era in which it is set, such as Miloš Forman’s Czech tragicomedy Loves of a Blonde (1965). But a style which once implied alacrity is, in Ida, painstakingly composed, with subjects trapped by staircases and power lines, stark contrasts and infinite sky, snow blowing nowhere. The muted expressions, which glaze the women’s faces and have few rest stops on the road from numbness to suffering, are circumscribed by the limits of one character’s experiences and the other’s expectations. It’s like Melancholia externalized: a perpetual, institutional post-apocalypse.

Ida makes one feel cloistered; it begins, fittingly, at an abbey, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking her vows. Before this happens, the novitiate is instructed to visit with her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who she has never met. (Anna had been deposited at the convent as a baby.) Wanda, whose apartment is luxurious by Lodz standards, goes through cigarettes and assignations on an assembly line, and greases the gears with booze; she has the worn, black pout of Jeanne Moreau. When she informs Anna that she’s a “Jewish nun,” the revelation is loaded like a black joke or insult. To Anna, it’s a non sequitur. Shown no more hospitality than a photo of her dead mother, and neither expecting nor feeling entitled to more, she heads back to the bus station that afternoon—till Wanda has a change of heart. They embark for the provinces to find where Anna’s parents were buried during the war.

These stories of Jews hidden, and ultimately betrayed, under the gun, by their Christian neighbors—the only American variant that comes to mind is the Jonathan Safran Foer novel Everything Is Illuminated—are rarely told from a Gentile perspective. Seen through the prism of a “Jewish nun,” who is learning to react to external stimuli as a toddler, innately resigned to Original Sin, might, Ida’s journey has elements of both freshness and detachment. Pawlikowski’s take on it is both aestheticized and ascetic. I wasn’t thrilled with the disjuncture between his glacially paced, high-art cinematography and the glacial, dismal settings at first; the implication seemed to be that direct emotion would be too vulgar. But this is a story, essentially, of aftermath: told after the action has happened and history had been set. The film’s deliberative style gives the viewer unusually broad license to scrutinize each frame; it’s like looking at beautiful portraits in a gallery that don’t catch or create a moment in time but digest it. The two women embody “earth” and “grace,” but unlike Malick in The Tree of Life, Pawlikowski makes them flesh—lets them be flesh. In Wanda’s case, waxing flesh, sweating like a candle melting to the nub. A magistrate, she was nicknamed “Red Wanda” in the early ’50s because of her zealous prosecution—and execution—of enemies of the state. She gives the lie to the Soviet bureaucracy; public policy has absorbed her private thirst for vengeance, which neither blood nor vodka can sanctify.

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Edge of Tomorrow

It’s a testament to something that Doug Liman has used footage from the 24-hour-news cycle as a prologue to his last two films: Fair Game (2010), the story of the Bush regime’s persecution of Iraq War dissenter Valerie Plame, and the new Edge of Tomorrow, which is about an alien invasion that throws Tom Cruise for a time loop. With a face that could set the white balance, Cruise’s talking head looks perfectly natural floating above the word “expert” in the CNN chyron. The primped uniform on his person belongs to Major William Cage, who shills victory to the viewing public by hawking suits of armor that turn troops into inverted Terminators: buggy exoskeletons with soft human innards. Forgive me if I’m being glib, but when Major Cage transitions—by virtue of an implausible, if serviceable device—from his on-camera cable sinecure to conscription into active duty and is finally plunged into the movie’s stripped-for-action Groundhog Day scenario, it’s like he’s going from one pernicious loop to another.

Edge of Tomorrow has been graced with an intelligence that makes glib readings more than idle or perverse. Source Code teased the military-industrial complex into the time-warp genre; but never, to my reckoning, has the formula been allied with the notion of “endless war,” or to the futile trench warfare of World War I, to which the writers (Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, from a graphic novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) overtly refer. Their intelligence finds a rare partner in optimism—a disposition that has become largely, perhaps systematically, outmoded in the summer blockbuster—and which possibly accounts for the cyberpunk D-Day reenactment. In a way, the film is a superhero origin story on themes from Malcolm Gladwell: a spray of gunk spurs Cage’s change from weasel to warrior, but it’s the 10,000 hours of boot camp he gets from Rita (Emily Blunt) that makes him an authentic hero.

Rita is the Morpheus to Cage’s Neo, but has to be reminded of this each time he resets the game clock. Rita used to have Cage’s power to relive the previous day after every time she died in battle. (The aliens use time travel as their secret weapon, but inadvertently surrender their control over it whenever they bleed on an opponent.) With each resurrection, Rita learned from her mistakes; this led to her winning the home team’s only victory, as well as the monikers “Angel of Verdun” and “Full-Metal Bitch.” But once she lost the power (undone by transfusions of muggle blood) the ball was back in the aliens’ court. Blunt gives Rita substance. She challenges Cruise, and the pathos might have been overwhelming had Cage not been shaped to his persona, and made to give off the vibe of a marketing guru who lives to give TED talks. Cage is at a perpetual disadvantage because Rita’s default is to be dismissive of him, and he’s a stranger after every reboot: he has to win her over anew. Damaged by her own failures, she’s too focused on the mission to notice, as we do, how weary he is of watching her die.

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