Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Cinema in the Dark Double-Feature
Snowpiecer & Under the Skin
Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Snowpiecer (2014)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho.
Summary: In this sci-fi epic, a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet. The final survivors board the SNOWPIERCER, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. When cryptic messages incite the passengers to revolt, the train thrusts full-throttle towards disaster.

Review: Part moral fable, part social satire, Snowpiercer has a lot on its mind, and on its plate. As a metaphor, the train represents the 1 percent wealthy folks who live in the front cars, while the impoverished revolutionists make up the 99 percent. The rich eat sushi while the poor eat "protein", a black gooey brick that we find later is made up of something we probably would not want to put in our mouth. The back of the train is led by Gilliam (as in Terry Gilliam, get it?) played by John Hurt; the front is led by Ed Harris (Wilford), designer and engineer of the perpetual train. What makes it perpetual is also a surprise you won't see coming, and even if you do, it's still shocking. Gilliam is too weak to continue to lead the revolt, so he enlists the smart and stoic Curtis (Chris Evans, who is a long way from his Captain American role).

There are secrets galore, betrayals and double-crosses. Don't think for a minute that your favorite character will reach the front of the train, for they are each disposable. What's important is the journey, and that's where all the fun lies. Each car has a different danger or pleasure. We find out which is which just as our revolutionaries do as they open each door. There's a boxcar full of hatchet men in one, a sushi bar in another. At times we laugh, at times we flinch in horror. And each car looks like a creation from Terry Gilliam (see how that tied in?).  Bong Joon-ho, who gave us the great monster movie The Host, delivers another great story, this one almost as epic as those Homeric hymns. Tragic heroes and heroic villains inhabit this journey from car to car.

Ultimately, Snowpiercer is an instant classic, a film worthy of multiple viewings, with enough layers in meaning to keep even the nerdiest viewer finding new gems in the dialog or frames. What puzzles me is how did this movie end up in the arthouse circuit. Was it bumped by Transformers? Probably. So, if it passed your local theater, it is now available online and on some cable pay-per-view networks. But, if you can, see this movie on the big screen. Big vistas, big characters, and big story demand a big screen viewing.


Under the Skin (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Summary: A voluptuous woman of unknown origin combs the highway in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. They are seduced, stripped of their humanity, and never heard from again. Based on the novel by Michael Faber, this film examines human experience from the perspective of an unforgettable heroine who grows too comfortable in her borrowed skin, until she is abducted into humanity with devastating results.

The Review: I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), directed by Mr. Psychedelic, Nicolas Roeg, so I know about intellectual Science Fiction movies that are more thought provoking than action adventure (like a Tom Cruise SF flick). To this day, I still don't know what I watched in the David Bowie film. I heard it's about money and corruption. I can see that. Problem is, I didn't see that. I saw a film about an alien from a drought-ridden planet who comes to Earth to try to save his planet. So, basically, we have two things going on: one, the movie we see, and two, the movie we "experience".

In Under the Skin, we see a alien creature (ScarJo) inhabit a human skin and set up dozens of men to be absorbed by a black floor made up of a liquidy tar goop. That's what we see. We can surmise that the bodies of the men are energy for their spaceship or food for consumption. Like the Bowie alien, ScarJo seems to have a plan and goes about it with repetitive workmanship, for about half the movie, I might add. I heard these early scenes where she lures the men into her van and leads them to their death were filmed with non-actors, real men in Scotland who thought they were being picked up for real, so the scenes play out quite realistically and make their deaths all the more empathetic. I also heard that only a handful of the men signed the waiver to appear in the film, but enough to take up half a movie.

We also see a guy on a motorcycle cruising through some beautiful vistas of forests and mountains. Is he her mate? Ask all you want, you're not getting an answer. What we can safely assume is that ScarJo becomes curious about her human skin. She saves one of her victims from the dreaded tar and abandons her mission to try her hand at being human. This takes up the second part of the film. We know she wants to be human because she tries to eat a slice of cake and attempts to make love to a man who tries to help her. Attempts because she's not equipped for human sex. Scene should have been funny; instead, it's poignant. Her curiosity has tragic consequences and the guy on the motorcycle waits at the rendezvous point alone.

That's what we see. What we experience is what you pay for. The play between dark and darker images begins with a point of light at the film's beginning. Is it the spaceship coming? Maybe. Who cares. It looks cool and seems foreboding. Each shot is picture-postcard perfect. There's very little dialog so there's lots to look at, and that's what carries the story. On a lark, I tried to follow a pattern to the plot development. The tar was earth, dirt or soil, of the elements. The open-spaces were air. So, by the end of the film, there should be fire, to complete the cycle of elements. Bam. There was fire. Congratulations. In typical nerd logic, the three elements, earth, air, fire, did frame the story experience. In essense, birth, life, and death. What do I win? Nothing. Just a good experience with a good movie.

So, film-lovers, this is the movie for you. Forget about the action movie humans versus aliens and simply be swept by the experience of the story frame by frame. Lots of ScarJo nudity, in good taste, more Penthouse than Playboy, but never Hustler. Some great panoramic vistas worthy of Ansel Adams. And for those of you who are up for the occasion, there is a story in there to be found. It may not be my "elements" framework, but it's one of those movies where we can share what we thought it was about afterwards over a cup of coffee.  

No comments:

Post a Comment