Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Snowpiercer, Life Itself Reviews

Dir. Bong Joon-ho
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Snowpiercer, the American debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) is a literal thrill ride.  Based off of a French graphic novel, this not-too-distant-future claustrophobic sci-fi picture takes place entirely on a large, non-stop train.  After humanity dies off from freezing Earth in an effort to stop global warming, the only human survivors are aboard this train led by a rich and mysterious man called Wilford.  The front of the train contains the engine room, where Wilford is, along with the members of "rich" society, and in the back are the poor, "working class," dirty, grimy, forced to eat black gelatinous bricks, and "put in their place" by Wilford's guards and right-hand woman, Mason, played to scumbag perfection by Tilda Swinton.  But in the words of 80's hair metal band Twisted Sister, these people aren't gonna take it anymore, and an uprising begins (led by Chris Evans).  The film is pretty much their journey from the back to the front of the train in an effort to get answers and begin a revolution.

Especially after coming off of the dreck of Transformers: Age of Extinction, where none of the characters had anything to them and nothing made sense, Snowpiercer is a godsend. This is everything you'd want an action movie to be.  Characters you can get behind,  intense, creative setpieces, amazing production design, and a strong, if simple, political backdrop.  This is pretty much what I wanted last year's Elysium to be, but didn't live up to.  The action is brilliant, and as the characters progress from one end of the train to the other, every car holds surprises (and this natural progression of events makes for a satisfying narrative).  Each of the characters are different and interesting in their own way, and you actually feel it when characters start to die.

Simply put, Snowpiercer is just a fantastic movie.  It reminded me a lot of Terry Gilliam's work in its world-building (you can definitely see the influence of Brazil), and I'm happy to see that Joon-ho's transition into English-language filmmaking was a success.  If you want a respite from all the crap that's been dumped into theaters recently, please seek out this film!

Rating: A-

Life Itself
Dir. Steve James
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Being a somewhat of a "film critic" myself, I've always been a big fan of Roger Ebert's, and his recent passing definitely hit hard for me, and may very well have marked the end of a certain era of film criticism.  To this day, whenever I watch an older movie, I look to see if Ebert reviewed it either in his archived print reviews or on a clip from his show; even if I don't agree with his reviews I always gain some sort of insight. Life Itself, directed by documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and adapted from Ebert's memoir of the same name, is a loving tribute to the most famous movie critic of all time.  The movie tracks Ebert's life in typical biographical fashion (with interviews from his fellow newspapermen at the Chicago Sun-Times, filmmakers he's helped along the way, including Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, and family members whose lives he's touched), and also interjects his struggles later in life as his health quickly started slipping from him (his cancer caused him to lose his jawbone, leaving him deformed and unable to eat, drink, or talk).

Life Itself is a great documentary that goes over most of the things you'd want in a retrospective and then some.  You see Ebert as he rises in the newspaper movie review circles, his cantankerous but brotherly relationship with Gene Siskel, and just how his reviews shaped a generation of both moviegoers and filmmakers.  As Roger would've wanted it, this is a warts-and-all documentary that isn't afraid to show his problems with drinking, sex, ego, and of course his health.  Though it can be morbid at times, Ebert never once stopped working, and it's his motivation to continue on writing (even until the day before he died), that makes his story so powerful.

The one thing that sets the film back in my mind was that it does focus way too heavily on his final days, likely because that's the only footage that James himself shot, and many scenes felt grotesque for the sake of being grotesque (yup, you get to watch Ebert's nurse feed him through a tube...is that really necessary?).  Instead of briefly showing his struggles, the film cuts back to a suffering Ebert again and again to reinforce his "positive attitude," but in effect overshadows his actual lived life.  It also would have been nice to get even more detail and stories, like the surprisingly missing connection between Hoop Dreams' success and Ebert's championing of the film.

That being said, this is still a fantastic tribute to a person every movie geek has a special place in their heart for, and it touches on a little bit of everything.  He led a truly full life - Life Itself has everything you'd want in a movie: humor, romance, sadness - it's the sort of thing I'm sure Ebert would've given a "thumbs up."

Rating: B+

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