Monday, June 30, 2014

Snowpiercer


Grade: 70/B

At this point, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is as well known for its battle behind-the-scenes with distributor Harvey Weinstein, who wanted several minutes cut from the film, as it is for being the Korean auteur’s English-language debut. Bong’s grim vision made it to theaters intact (albeit on only a few screens), and it’s quite a film. Loosely based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer shows Bong working in sci-fi allegory mode along the lines of Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro and Terry Gilliam. If the film can’t quite measure up to its ambitions, its no less fascinating because of it.

2031: seventeen years after an experiment to counteract global warming started a new ice age, the only survivors live in a giant train called the Snowpiercer. The train is divided between the rich, who live in the front of the train, and the poor, consigned to the tail, living in abject poverty (they dine only on protein blocks made from truly nasty stuff) and under strict enforcement by armed guards. Any uprising is quickly squelched, and any sign of disobedience is punished severely.

The tail inhabitants have had enough, and, in an uprising led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and masterminded by Gilliam (John Hurt, named in a nod to one of Bong’s influences), they make their way through the train with to the prisoner car and rescue Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), an addict who agrees to help them open the train doors (which he designed) in exchange for the drug. But the group finds that the rich have more supplies and weapons at their disposal than they’d initially believed, suffering heavy casualties. They also learn of some of the terrible secrets of the train kept by both sides.

This only covers a handful of the characters and sidetracks of Snowpiercer, which also include: Namgoong Minsu’s fellow-addict daughter (Go Ah-sung), who makes a connection with Curtis; Curtis’s excitable right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell); a number of poor children taken to the front of the train for unknown purposes, and a pair of distraught parents (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner) looking for them; and a number of true believers of mysterious train creator/leader Wilford, including Tilda Swinton as a Minister, Vlad Ivanov as her henchman, and Alison Pill as a psychotically chipper schoolteacher.

Even at Bong’s intended two-hour runtime, Snowpiercer doesn’t have enough time to devote to all of these characters. Spencer and Bell remain frustratingly underdeveloped, with the latter’s underuse especially lessening the impact of a major twist later on. Other developments, such as the big reveal as to what exactly the children are being brought to the front of the train for, are brought in so late in the game that the film isn’t able to make much of them.

Snowpiercer also runs into trouble with its lead. Chris Evans is a likable enough presence, but he doesn’t have the rough-and-tumble charisma the character needs, nor is he able to fully sell a late reveal about his Curtis’s past. He’s serviceable enough in the role, but if ever a film required a modern equivalent to Kurt Russell or Harrison Ford, this is it.

But Snowpiercer largely works anyway, thanks to Bong’s assured direction. The film’s giant sets are a marvel, creating and utilizing a fully-realized bifurcated environment that helps ground the film’s blunt class allegory in a way last year’s Elysium couldn’t. It’s no less simplistic than that film, but it’s a more compelling vision that exists for reasons beyond the purpose of pushing talking-points (or shooting-points) from point A to point B.

As he proved with The Host, Bong is a remarkable director of action, shooting the race towards the front of the train with building momentum while constantly shifting which side has the upper-hand at any given moment. The film is at its best, however, when it’s flying off the rails (forgive the pun). Bong’s films frequently fluctuate in tone from grim drama to broad comedy, but rarely more delightfully than when he’s putting Swinton’s deranged upper-class official in extreme close-up, or when Pill’s pregnant schoolteacher goes from singing a happy song about the vision of the train’s builder (“What happens if the engine stops?/We all freeze and die!”) to becoming much more dangerous. Snowpiercer is a bit all over the place, but that’s part of its appeal; it’s so doggedly determination to take the blockbuster and make something so damned weird with it.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jersey Boys


Grade: 50/C+

Why did Clint Eastwood want to direct Jersey Boys? The veteran actor and filmmaker has certainly had his share of strange projects (see: Space Cowboys, in which old people are astronauts and that fact is deemed hilarious), but few that seem as ill-suited to his classical touch as a Four Seasons jukebox musical. Released about five years past the 2005 musical’s movie adaptation sell-by date, Eastwood’s take on the movie musical is an odd bird, his most engaging film in some time yet clearly helmed by the wrong director.

The film stars the original Broadway production’s star John Lloyd Young in his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli, born Castelluccio, a New Jersey kid with an extraordinary falsetto voice and a dream to be “as big as Sinatra.” Frankie and his hoodlum pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) have mob connections (including Christopher Walken as a boss who loves Frankie’s voice), but it isn’t until they meet young songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) that they first start to take off.

With bassist/bass voice Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and under the guidance of producer and songwriter Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), they become the Four Seasons, recording pop classics like “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” taking the charts by storm. But behind the scenes, things aren’t as carefree as their songs: Frankie’s commitments to the road ruin his marriage and his relationship with his daughter, the voice-songwriter partnership of Frankie and Bob rankles Tommy’s ego and marginalizes Nick, and Tommy’s debts threaten to tear them apart.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s screenplay sticks closely to the book of the show, but it doesn’t translate well to the screen. On stage, the transitions between song and behind-the-music story are more fluid, and the emphasis is clearly on the music. On screen, it no longer feels like a musical, more closely resembling shapeless music biopics in the Ray or Walk the Line mold. That shift in focus changes it from a show about great musicians and their story behind the scenes and turns it into a movie about a bunch of guys who had personal problems, stopped liking each other and, oh, by the way, also sang great songs.

Besides, the appeal of Jersey Boys on stage is that the audience is swept up in the energy of the live performances of songs they know and love. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of audiences singing and dancing along with the show at most productions. Remove it from that context and put it in the multiplex, where singing and dancing along is strictly forbidden unless you’re at a Rocky Horror screening, and you’ve removed the show’s urgency. The focus is instead drawn to familiar, drawn-out shouting matches between the Seasons, between Frankie and his stock character wife (and blank sympathy device of a daughter).

Still, if Jersey Boys absolutely had to be turned into a movie, it’s hard to think of a style more at odds with the show than Eastwood’s. Watching Jersey Boys is a surreal experience, as Eastwood’s typically stately aesthetic is constantly at war with material that demands a more animated approach. Eastwood and his regular cinematographer Tom Stern give the film the same desaturated palette that’s been their look of choice since Mystic River, a bad fit for a film that should pop off the screen (think the way Tom Hanks’s directorial effort That Thing You Do! looks). It ends up draining an already fairly low-stakes story of its energy, not helped by the film’s slack pacing (in stark contrast to the show’s zippiness).

It’s a shame, since some of Eastwood’s instincts are quite good. He keeps the show’s multiple-narrators device, with each of the Four Seasons chiming in with their perspective on their rise to stardom. It’s a touch that’s been lazily and inaccurately compared by some to Rashomon but skews closer to the De Niro/Pesci narration in Casino, with speaking-to-the-camera fourth-wall breaks deliberately modeled after those in Goodfellas and Scorsese’s short It’s Not Just You, Murray! Eastwood also uses deliberately artificial old Hollywood sets and scenarios (whasamatter Italian gangsters, rear projection in a car) in a way that parallels the slick, infectious pop sound of the Four Seasons music as their real-life troubles threaten to burst the bubble.

On top of that, Eastwood himself is a very musical director (let’s ignore his previous outing starring in a musical, the disastrous Paint Your Wagon): his love of jazz is best exemplified by his Charlie Parker biopic Bird, but music also helps drive genre efforts like Play Misty for Me and prestige films like Mystic River. With Jersey Boys, some have said that the songs carry the musical sequences past Eastwood’s pale direction, but in truth, his confident, unshowy montage and compositions serve the musical performances beautifully. Compared to Tom Hooper and Rob Marshall’s inept framing and editing of the musical sequences in Les Miserables and Nine, Jersey Boys looks like a Vincente Minnelli film.

But it isn’t enough to get past the weird disjunction between the blatant artificiality of the movie Eastwood wants to make and his somber style, which sits on the damn movie. And while Eastwood’s decision to cast Broadway veterans and non-stars for the major roles mostly pays off, it winds up failing him in the key role of Frankie Valli. John Lloyd Young is a fine actor, but he’s not a naturally expressive one, and he doesn’t have the star power required to make Valli work as a character on screen (perhaps Eastwood could have pulled a Marni Nixon and dubbed Young’s singing over a more charismatic actor).

Jersey Boys isn’t as righteously embalmed as Invictus, Hereafter or J. Edgar, thank goodness, and it’s the closest thing to a pure populist movie from him in the better part of a decade. It’s also a more personal statement than it appears at first glance, with Valli’s longevity as a performer mirroring Eastwood’s own (“like that Bunny on TV, I just keep goin’ and goin’ and goin’…”). But the film rarely taps into the passion heard in the music, or even the passion Valli expresses late in the film for it. It’s a vibrant project in theory, a muted one in practice.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I recently interned at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

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Check out my account on
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.4: Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 86/A-

Released a year before Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough film Rashomon, 1949’s Stray Dog has developed a reputation in some circles as the director’s first masterpiece. Inspired by Jules Dassin’s noir The Naked City but equally indebted to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, the film is a moral tale and examination of postwar Japan in the guise of a procedural. It falls slightly short of ranking with Kurosawa’s finest works, to my eyes, but it’s a terrific film in its own right, and the sign that the maturing filmmaker was on the cusp of greatness.

Rookie homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is filled with deep shame after his gun is stolen on a crowded trolley, and shame turns to guilt after he learns that the gun was used in a crime. Murakami is soon joined by veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), a more coolheaded who helps him track the gun to downtrodden World War II veteran Yusa. Sato is supremely focused on the case and the hunt to stop Yusa before he hurts someone, but Murakami, also a war veteran, sees too much of himself in Yusa to divorce himself from emotion.

Kurosawa had demonstrated his growing confidence as a stylist in his 1948 film Drunken Angel, but he gets his best opportunity to demonstrate his talents yet in a striking nine-minute montage. The normally well-dressed Murakami wears filthy clothes and serches the Japanese underground for any sign of the gun racket that now has his gun. Kurosawa uses dissolves to layer images of men and women in poor conditions, crowds without any sense of order, and the weary detective wandering through a labyrinth of poverty during a heat wave. It’s a near-wordless sequence where the most notable sound is Kurosawa’s segueing without warning from one bit of diegetic music to the next, giving a sense of endlessness to Murakami’s search. It’s purposefully long and exhausting, showing both the existential directionlessness of Murakami and the terrible, hopeless conditions that drive people to crime.

The montage is a scene of continuous movement, but Kurosawa is just as assured when dealing with stillness. Sato’s first scene introduces him with little fanfare: Murakami enters a room where he sits at a table with a woman the younger detective brought in earlier. He’s in a still medium shot, which brings a sense of normalcy and calm to his interrogation. When Kurosawa cuts to a terrific deep focus, he shows the suspect and Sato in the foreground and midground calmly eating popsicles while Murakami sits anxiously in the background. There’s a level of comfort between the two even as he interrogates her, and it’s only as Sato gradually gets closer to the truth that Kurosawa cuts. Even then, the woman loses her cool, Sato keeps his. The level of precision in each edit perfectly suits his quiet confidence, just as the perpetual motion of the earlier montage mirrors Murakami’s restlessness.

Mifune and Shimura played opposites in Drunken Angel as well, with the young man’s tempestuousness and lack of control serving as the yin to the more controlled, taciturn older man. That dynamic is back in Stray Dog, but without seeming like a retread. Where Mifune’s gangster in the earlier film was a reckless, explosive character who’d purposely cut off his own humanity, Murakami’s restlessness is borne more out of nervous energy, inexperience and an excess of emotion. Shimura’s character, meanwhile, is measured, professional, and cool, never the private mess that his doctor in the earlier film is. Yet his pragmatism doesn’t allow him to have the same sympathy for criminals that Murakami does, something the younger detective struggles with.

Stray Dog’s strong procedural structure serves as the foundation for one of his Dostoevsky-influenced tales of morality and humanity. The more experienced cops’s repeated expression that Murakami is too sensitive to be an effective cop might sound cold, but he isn’t completely wrong. The young man sees too clearly how Yusa’s experiences parallel his, to the point where he blames himself for the crimes committed with his gun more than the criminal. It might make him a good human being, one who sees the state of postwar Japan clearly, but it doesn’t make him an effective cop, and his guilt frequently borders on self-pity.

Like a number of early Kurosawa films, Stray Dog gets a little too didactic at times, particularly when Murakami finally goes from seeing the world as morally grey to having a clearer perspective on right and wrong (“The world is wrong…but you can’t take it out on the world!”). Kurosawa also slightly undercuts the moral murk of the situation by stressing that Murakami’s own mistake wound up doing more right than wrong, as the loss of his gun led them to take down a gun racket. Still, there’s power in the film’s moral intelligence, which sees the difference between right and wrong while still understanding the motives of those who do wrong.   

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I recently interned at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
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Maleficent


Grade: 51/C+

Resolved: Angelina Jolie is the greatest living movie star who still hasn’t headlined great movie. She’s done supporting work in stellar films like Kung Fu Panda and the woefully underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and given great performances in solid-to-middling films (Changeling, A Mighty Heart, her Oscar-winning work in Girl, Interrupted), but too often she lends her considerable presence to projects that squander a kernel of a good idea. Her latest film, Maleficent, is yet another disappointment, a potentially ingenious but half-realized reimagining that constantly feels like it should be much better than it is.

Jolie stars as the great antagonist of Disney’s 1959 hit Sleeping Beauty, but in keeping with recent fairytale prequels (Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful to The Wizard of Oz, for example), she’s less evil and more misunderstood. The guardian of a magical realm that neighbors a menacing human world, she’s betrayed by old friend Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who drugs her and cuts off her wings to gain the throne. Furious and horrified, she vows revenge, placing a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora. But as Maleficent watches Aurora (Elle Fanning) grow under the care of three incompetent fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville) and becomes her reluctant protector, she’s faced with conflicting emotions: hatred for a man, love for his daughter; rightful vengefulness and regret for how she’s enacted it.

It’s a terrific concept, not the least for the unsubtle but effective rape metaphor in Stefan’s violation of Maleficent’s trust. Jolie’s work in the aftermath scene is anguished without being overwrought, with her expressive eyes doing most of the work. She’s equally terrific in later scenes where Maleficent affects an outsized villainess persona, intimidating Stefan’s men while marking that she’s wearing a mask to protect herself. That mask gradually slips off in her scenes with Fanning, further subverts the traditional Disney model of beautiful naïf kidnapped by wicked woman into a feminist tale of youthful empathy healing wounds dealt by a cruel male world.

But the film’s most admirable qualities can’t quite overcome the banality surrounding it. The script, by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and, ugh, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland), feels like either a promising but unfinished first draft or a heavily compromised one, as the film rushes whole acts (Stefan’s change from friend to monster, Aurora’s childhood). Neophyte director Robert Stromberg, the Oscar-winning production designer of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland (ugh again), doesn’t have the imagination to make up for it, piling on the his same CGI-overload that overwhelmed Alice and (the still underrated) Oz the Great and Powerful. He otherwise seems content to reproduce the look of Sleeping Beauty and layer over a syrupy James Newton Howard score. And while the film humanizes Maleficent, it also provides a new one-note villain in Stefan, played by Copley with the same terrible, hammy instincts that have typified his post-District 9 villain work. Jolie’s performance and the film’s conceit are strong enough to partially compensate for the film’s frequent missteps, but Maleficent remains a film at odds with itself, too afraid of alienating the core audience to be as bold as it wants to be.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I recently interned at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.