EIFF 2014: Snowpiercer 0 24

eiff-2014-snowpiercer

One of the more high profile and highly anticipated films of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival is Snowpiercer, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s foray into English-language filmmaking. And it may be one of the most successful examples of an East Asian director making the jump to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of Park Chan-wook (Stoker), Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights) and Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand), to name but a recent few.

Based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in a world where global warming has led to experiments that ultimately causes a worldwide ice age, killing off most of the human population. The last remaining survivors are aboard Snowpiercer, a train that is run by “the eternal engine,” perpetual power that keeps the train moving on a globe-spanning track all year round.

The train is divided into different segments, both in terms of function – water, food etc – and in terms of a class system set up by those still in power. This means that the rich and powerful live at the front of the train, enjoying great food and comfort, while the poor are forced to stay at the back in horrible cramped conditions and with only tar-like protein blocks to sustain themselves. 17 years on from the ice age, the tail passengers – led by Curtis (Chris Evans) – decide to start a revolt.

It’s an absolutely fascinating and infinitely intriguing premise with great potential to spin off into so many different areas. Bong, along with co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), skilfully manages to present this idea in a clear and concise fashion while never oversimplifying its central ideas about social inequality and the quest for not only human survival but dignity, nor does it tackle these things by beating you over the head with a message.

Similar to TV’s Battlestar Galactica, it’s a fascinating look at a society in microcosm, exploring how even in such an apocalyptic situation in which literally billions of people have been wiped out that there is still a tiered society that emerges where the rich and powerful beforehand remain so. Why? Because they have physical power – including guns and control over food, water and the locks and keys that seclude everyone – as well as psychological power over those deprived and in need. Even when the poor folk try to fight back, and met with brute force, there’s still an underlying feeling that this society functions for the sake of there being a society and order. As Mason, a head mistress-esque authoritative spokeswoman for the front of the train (played magnificently by Tilda Swinton), says; “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. Keep your place.”

Bong’s film provides something for just about everyone, with things segmented both literally and the type of entertainment it provides. There’s as much deliberately paced character building and exploration of their individual motivations – given impact by impressive performances from the likes of Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho (one of Bong’s regular collaborators), as there is stunning action, the latter made all the more impressive by the close-quarters nature of it all. One centrepiece sequence in which the revolting population face off against the small army of armed soldiers is particularly impressive, stylishly visceral as it recalls both the graphic novel upon which it’s based and Park Chan-wook’s hallway fight scene from Oldboy.

As the revolt begins and we start moving from the harsh tail section, we begin to see the various areas of the constricted world in which the remaining human population lives. Almost every segment brings a new flavour and atmosphere to the film as a whole, perpetually revealing new layers to the society, whether it be the creepily compliant (brainwashed?) schoolchildren in the classroom carriage or the surprising addition of an actual nightclub where the carefree rich can enjoy themselves while the poor try their best to survive just a dozen segments away.

Bong’s debut English-language feature is an impressive machine indeed, as well oiled intellectually as it is thoroughly entertaining and compelling. It’s a film that deftly explores the themes of everyday society but taken to the extreme and heightened in a restricted setting, punctuating its narrative with bouts of thrilling and expertly choreographed action alongside moments of welcome humour. Ironically, in spite of its seemingly disjointed plot where things are literally segmented, it adds up to more than the sum of its parts, making for a rich and audacious cinematic experience that fuses arthouse thinking with blockbuster heart. Overall it’s simply a killer concept brilliantly executed.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 203

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 227

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10