Monthly Archives: March 2014

Snowpiercer (2014)

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Much like the train we inhabit for Bong Joon-Ho’s English language directorial debut, the direction in which “Snowpiercer” travels is determined, but at its core, the journey is one that has no control. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the trip isn’t one hell of a ride. Brilliantly choreographed and unrelenting action highlights this resplendent visual feast that has the brains to match, for the most part. With brutal violence and an array of contrasting, stimulating colours, one can’t help but push the chaos and in-your-face obviousness of “Snowpiercer” to the back burner and just enjoy the trek.

Bong Joon-Ho has been and continues to be a filmmaker whom I admire and look to for inspiration. The director of numerous triumphs such as true-crime thriller “Memories of Murder,” modern monster masterpiece “The Host,” and psychological drama “Mother.” Bong Joon-Ho finally makes his much anticipated debut in English language cinema with “Snowpiercer,” much like his South Korean counterpart Chan Wook-Park did in 2013 with “Stoker.” This latest offering from Bong Joon-Ho features an all-star cast comprised of newcomers and veterans to Ho’s brand of film. Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, and John Hurt lead the way.

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In the not too distant future, humankind unleashes what is believed to be a chemical remedy to global warming into the atmosphere. When this experiment backfires and sends our planet into an unliveable state, the few who remain seek refuge on the ‘Snowpiercer.’ A train powered by a perpetual motion engine that circles the globe once every year. Designed by the prophetic Wilford, this train is the last livable place on Earth, running on the same, worldwide track for eternity.

On board the train, what remains of our population has descended in to madness and chaos. The rich, privileged first class passengers live in luxury and comfort at the front of the train, while the rest find home at the tail where food and space is sparse. In order to obtain better living conditions and equality, the tail section revolts in an attempt to take over the engine and overthrow the current status in which the train functions.

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Taking into account that “Snowpiercer” was an adaptation, the original format being a graphic novel. A lot of the film’s blatant depiction of its themes and cartoonish violence and characters is understandable. That being said, at its worst, “Snowpiercer” is a bewildering, over-stuffed allegory that really suffers from pacing problems. Which is kind of intriguing seeing as originally, Bong Joon-Ho was not given control over the final cut of the film. This changed rather quickly though with the outcry of infuriated fans, much like myself and Bong Joon-Ho once again took full control of his film. However, whether or not this is the truth or simply a gambit I find to be in question, seeing as the film itself feels as if there was a lot more character and story development left on the cutting room floor.

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On the flip side, for all of its faults, “Snowpiercer” is a visually entertaining and mentally challenging flick. And apart from a rather lacklustre climax, there isn’t a single moment in its just over two-hour run-time in which boredom will overtake you. While extremely violent, “Snowpiercer” is not excessively gory. It tries and at times succeeds in portraying compassion and brotherhood over war and never sells the evilness of humanity as our undoing.

In his transition, Bong Joon-Ho hasn’t lost any part of his infallible repertoire. If anything, “Snowpiercer” is his most ambitious, technically masterful film to date. As we progress through each car, we are treated to a completely different spectrum of colour ranging from achromatic to vibrant and picturesque. The battle sequences are captured with the utmost intensity and emotion and the characters never take a backseat to this visual spectacle. While undoubtedly not Bong Joon-Ho’s strongest outing, “Snowpiercer” will forever remain an achievement on his impressive resume.

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While I was, without question, rather anxiously excited awaiting Bong Joon-Ho’s next project, I didn’t become totally smitten until I heard that Kang-Ho Song would be co-starring. Having lead a few of my personal favourites: “Thirst,” “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” “Memories of Murder,” and “The Host,” you can see why I was so ripe with anticipation. In “Snowpiercer,” Kang-Ho Song is as charismatic, intimidating, and darkly hilarious as ever. While the script didn’t really allow for his character to outstretch his wings, so to speak, there’s no denying that Song did everything he could to bring this mad, drug-addicted genius to life.

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Leading alongside Kang-Ho Song is Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Having previously been featured in such personal favourites as “The Iceman” and “Sunshine,” I was sure that alongside Song, Evans wouldn’t disappoint. Evans continues his ascent to stardom with another heartfelt, invested turn, this time as the leader of the tail section revolution with a dreary, ruthless past. One thing that has become very apparent as of late, and that “Snowpiercer” exemplifies, is that Evans has the ability to deal out heroic, blockbuster performances as well as dramatic stunners.

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In supporting roles, Swinton is nothing short of impeccable. Decisively devilish and so easy to hate, Swinton does a phenomenal job as an antagonist who’s death the viewer can easily enjoy. Jamie Bell continues to earn my respect and trust. After surprising performances in “Filth” and the recent “Nymphomaniac,” Bell’s performance in “Snowpiercer” is another I can sink my teeth into. Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris are also worth noting here. While easily lost in the background, their brief moments on screen are strong enough to dazzle and provoke.

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While not the game-changer I was anticipating. “Snowpiercer” is still an impressive feat that all involved can be proud of. It’s as entertaining as any big-budgeted Hollywood action flick and much more rewarding. It’ll turn its fair share of casual filmgoers away with its bleak, disturbing, and violent content, but for those who can stand “Snowpiercer” at its most repugnant, this is one train ride they won’t soon forget.

Snowpiercer: 8 out of 10.

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In Fear (2014)

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For cinephiles, much like myself, I find that horror is trickier to dissect in the same manner one would a film in other genres. Reason being that no matter how impressive and substantial, horror films never seem to carry as much reverence in the art of film as a whole. For example, come award season, horror flicks aren’t exactly looked upon with much value and very rarely garner a nomination, let alone a victory. Why?

I never like to toss myself in the minority, but I can’t help it this time. Personally, horror is one of, if not the genre of choice, and I’m not alone. I’ve seen the very best of what the genre has to offer from the ultra disturbing, to the unbearably gory and so on. Yet, people still can’t shake this notion that somehow horror is a notch below cinema’s elite. It’s as if we’ve been brainwashed to believe that what the horror genre has to offer isn’t worthy of our time and acclaim. How many times have you heard the lie that the horror genre is dying? This mindset needs to change amongst us cinephiles. Horror creates fear, one of the most crucial and unique emotions that affects the human body mentally and physically, unlike any other feeling. The point of cinema is to provoke reaction, isn’t it? So how can you deny yourself that experience? Begin your cinematic progression, your film evolution here, with “In Fear.”

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Director Jeremy Lovering has set the record straight. His latest film’s title is derived from the story and the premise on which it was based, as if after watching this cinematic thesis unfold left any confusion. This dive into horror isn’t exactly conventional. You know, a series of events that progress to a distressing crest, climax, and conclude. No, there is something theoretic, scientific, albeit madly, about this picture. Something that Lovering put best when he summarized that his latest flick wasn’t a typical outing into terror, rather, “an experiment in fear.” And although “In Fear” is quite terrifying, it isn’t solely driven by the fear it is able to provoke. It is a film that explores the experience of fear itself and what effect it has on the human body, both mentally and physically. And more importantly, to what extent is the damage irreversible…

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“There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself.” A famous quote used by many I’m sure you’ve heard somewhere before. Maybe a tad cliche, especially when discussing the horror genre, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This notion is excavated and examined exhaustively throughout “In Fear,” almost scholar-like.

This theory is fairly simple to understand. Essentially, what’s truly frightening about fear is what the emotion allow’s ourselves to create. When terrified, it’s as if we access a part of our brain we don’t normally tend to, where we keep all the things we irrevocably dread. It’s this miraculously unnerving ability to turn common things like shadows, rain, tree branches into monstrosities not of this world with sinister motivations. It’s the darkest side of our imagination, a wonder of life who’s existence we despise to the marrow.

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Of course however, no matter how talented we may be at transforming bland simplicity into complex apparitions of terror, we are never really in danger, it’s all just a concoction in our brain, a phantom that never actually existed. Kind of anti-climactic, isn’t it? That being said however, with “In Fear” Lovering presents and depicts a rather intriguing idea, an uncomfortable thought. He states that the only thing we have to fear is those without any. Someone who is removed from fear and danger, someone who’s life isn’t of value to them self. This then allows this being without fear to become an external force, like gravity. When you distinguish and rid yourself of fear, you gain control over every other life form. Simply, you have fear and it doesn’t, you have everything to lose and it doesn’t. Creepy, isn’t it?

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Lovering captures the immensity of “In Fear’s” theory flawlessly, which is all the more remarkable considering that the entirety of the film takes place within a car. Yet, as impressive as this philosophical intelligence is, what’s even more astounding is the fact that “In Fear” was captured literally void of a script. All the cast and crew had to go on was a premise, nothing more. Looking back on the scale of what they created with how little they begun with is worth the watch alone. Now, aside from the theoretical premise, the genuine ambiguity of the dialogue and script, keep an eye out for “In Fear’s” use of atmosphere to create the foundation of terror. Hauntingly beautiful visuals of baron fields, harsh weather, and dreary overgrowth form this Earthy, elemental fright that’s inescapable. Combined with a light, ominous score, the fright is almost unbearable.

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Without scripted structure and dialogue, Lovering was hoping to achieve an authentic portrayal of fear, something the cast, comprised of Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert, and Allen Leech, would have to convey naturally. Englert and Caestecker portray the victims of Leech’s torment, a young couple on their first getaway. Leech is the highlight of the film, performance wise. His sadistic, unmotivated, sociopathic take on a serial murderer is bone-chilling. One of the better performances I’ve seen in a horror film in a good, long while. As for Englert and Caestecker, what can one say? The level of genuine fear they reach in their portrayals is bewildering. Their performances really drive the film forward. Honestly, for parts of this flick, you’ll feel as if you’re watching a snuff film, that’s how realistic the performances are.

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Although undoubtedly not for everyone, “In Fear” is a terrific showcase of horror done right.

In Fear: 8.5 out of 10

Enemy (2014)

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Dennis Villeneuve’s latest, “Enemy,” is seemingly shrouded in secrecy. Amongst the remnants of Villeneuve’s last film, high-profile crime-thriller “Prisoners,” this mysterious piece of suspenseful anti-existentialism took form and emerged from the shadows. Blending staggeringly beautiful camerawork, the lovely Toronto skyline muddled in a glowing haze, and marvellously haunting performances from the entire cast, “Enemy” quite handily manages to stimulate, stump, and shock. With Hitchcock-like suspense, an atmosphere akin to classic David Lynch, and a skin-crawling metamorphosis that would make Kafka proud. “Enemy” stands not only as a sufficiently fulfilling thriller, but a nerve-shredding, confident, worthy art-house piece in the ranks of its inspirations.

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A flick that’s as much an exercise in problem solving as it is a piece of art, a lot like a puzzle or a mathematical game of deciphering a pattern or code. “Enemy” is about as complex as they come, never ceasing to challenge the viewer with a barrage of variables, twists and turns. It’s an equation comprised of shapeless pieces that intertwine to form a web on the grandest scale.

Based on “The Double” by Jose Saramago, “Enemy” was adapted for the screen by Javier Gullon and directed by the aforementioned Dennis Villeneuve. Shot on location in Toronto, this modern-day fable stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role, Melanie Laurent, and Sarah Gadon.

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Adam (Gyllenhaal) is a history professor who is slowly becoming more and more disinterested in the world and people surrounding him. Even his girlfriend Mary (Laurent) can’t seem to hold his attention outside of the bedroom in his gloomy, run-down apartment. On a recommendation, Adam decides to pick up a local film at a nearby video store, perhaps a last attempt at salvaging his humanity. Later that night, while Mary sleeps alone in the next room, Adam has reluctantly become entranced by the low-budget flick. Then, while lost in a deep sleep, Adam has a dream heavily influenced by the movie, so much so that Adam begins to see himself in the picture. Awakening frightened, he revisits the film to find that it wasn’t himself he was seeing in his dream, but an extra that resembles himself exactly. Stunned, Adam becomes obsessed with his look-alike and eventually searches out his identical being.

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Anthony (Gyllenhaal) is an aspiring actor who is expecting his first child with his lovely wife Helen (Gadon). The two are looking for a fresh start after some turbulence early on in their relationship. Having recently moved to a respectable apartment, one could conclude that this new place of residence is a symbol of their relationship’s rejuvenation. One day, Helen receives a bizarre phone call from someone who sounds exactly like her husband Anthony. As days pass, the phone calls persist, which Anthony now handles in private. Letting speculation get the best of her, Helen demands Anthony reveal the nature of the calls. Anthony informs his wife that it is nothing but a bizarre man claiming to be a big fan of his films. Fully aware of the trust issues his marriage has sustained, Anthony decides to keep the true nature of the calls from his wife, that Adam is on the other end, clamouring to be Anthony’s doppelgänger.

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I know it may appear as if I’ve somewhat spoiled the film with the previous summarization, but I assure you, the information I’ve provided you with is merely the premise. I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of “Enemy” and that’s the way it’ll have to stay in order for you, the reader, to thoroughly experience and discover its depths. That being said, I can tell you that what follows will undoubtedly leave a fair amount of viewers on the opposite side of the fence. “Enemy” is a complex, intricate beast that’ll leave you begging for a second viewing. It’ll keep you up at night, reading, thinking about every aspect of its veiled misdirection, dialogue, and symbolism. You won’t be able to view “Enemy” and then simply sit it on a shelf, it requires ambitious follow-up.

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While I can’t reveal “Enemy’s” secrets, I can describe to you Dennis Villeneuve’s mastery is on display throughout this film. However, if I’m to be honest, this is the first film of Villeneuve’s I’ve seen. That being said, after viewing “Enemy,” I can assure you his catalogue is on my radar.

Now, what I found most impressive is Villeneuve’s ability to shift seamlessly from the large-scale stuff down to the minuscule. Through his lens, we span across a luminous smog and an achromatic pallet that has Toronto looking menacing and infinite. Then, a few shots down the road, we’re locked, engulfed in a dark and dreary apartment, watching two men and their identities crumble under what defines them, or lack there of. Villeneuve somehow manages to create this rapidly rising claustrophobia through intimate settings and predicaments, like travelling on a streetcar or partaking in compassionate sex. A vulnerable helplessness, inescapability that gives us a distinct vantage point to our own importance and insignificance that is truly remarkable. Without question some of the finest camerawork and direction I’ve ever seen.

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It’s always a visual treat for viewers when an actor tackles multiple roles in a film, and quite a challenge for the one who has undertaken it. Still, I feel most filmmakers and actors haven’t fully capitalized on the double premise…until now.

On one hand, sitting on a motorcycle sporting a devilishly handsome and intimidating beard while wearing a black leather jacket, we have Jake Gyllenhaal’s Anthony. A cold, pretentious, opportunistic predator bordering narcissistic. Conversely, lounging around his crappy apartment, unkempt, grading papers, and forcing himself on his girlfriend, we have Gyllenhaal’s Adam. A pessimist and reluctant narcissist, who’s soul just might still be salvageable. Two vastly different characters comprised of a single man’s brilliance. Gyllenhaal, who’s wowed us in the past with “Donnie Darko” and “Source Code,” gives a career defining performance…twice. Even if you find yourself flabbergasted, obsessed, or just plain infuriated by “Enemy,” there’s no denying Gyllenhaal’s triumph.

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The characters of Mary and Helen are a level of bizarre all on their own, mirroring one another, although not to the same extent of Adam and Anthony. Melanie Laurent (Mary), arguably portraying the sanest character in the film, does what she can with her limited dialogue and screen time. Had Mary been more crucial to the story instead of merely being an oblivious pawn, Laurent would have been allowed to stun as we should expect. Nonetheless, Laurent is as radiant and invested as always. Sarah Gadon (Helen) has drawn possibly the most intriguing character in the film, which I cannot explain due to spoilers. Regardless, this gorgeous rising star continues to improve and hone her craft while building a very respectable repertoire.   Immaculate performances by the entire ensemble, through and through.

Featuring a transfixing musical score, stunning visuals, immensely impressive performances, and dread that reaches its pinnacle at the terrifying ending. “Enemy” is a taut, entertaining, slow-burning thriller that we’ll be discussing and revisiting for a good, long while.

Enemy: 9 out of 10.

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)

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Beyond this warning, there is language, images, and content that deal with mature themes and may offend some viewers. Reader discretion is advised.

It astonishes me, and I guess it’s quite comical…rather depressing actually when you think about it, that we as a species have come all this way, evolved and conquered, created technological wonders, been to the outer reaches of our solar system and back, just to continue masking our stimulation and excitement in social predicaments with excessive, uncomfortable, unwarranted laughter, brash throat-clearing, peculiar postures and odd hand placements, simply due to the fact that, for some reason, we are ashamed of this extremely common reflex. I bring this up because the audience behaved and reacted in such a way while we watched Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” and it got me a little infuriated…but also  because the film itself somewhat illuminates this restraint put on our most primal, primitive instinct by humanities non-sensical self-embarrassment, but I digress. It baffles me is all.

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Just by glancing at Lars Von Trier’s latest film’s title, “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” one is fairly sound in deducing the kind of premise, content, and imagery to be expected. You know, the kind of unflinching, raw material that can make even the most indifferent, cold-blooded being blush. I mean, what else should one anticipate from the master of honesty and controversy? With a title like “Nymphomaniac,” you can bank on Trier presenting a lot of skin, sex, and depravity for the whole family to enjoy.

We follow Joe, played by the magnificent, fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg, who essentially will comply with any role Trier requests. Joe is found by Seligman, who is brought to life by the incomparable, tragically underrated Trier vet Stellan Skarsgard in a dark, filthy alleyway. Beaten and bloody, Seligman takes pity on Joe and helps with her recuperation in his guest bedroom. Right before heading to sleep, Joe begins to recount her life as a sex addict to Seligman over a cup of tea, who has found an entertaining correlation between Joe’s nymphomania and his hobby, fly-fishing. Never skipping the slightest, most deplorable details, Joe and Seligman begin to bond over Joe’s childhood discovery of her genitals, her prepubescent expeditions into losing her virginity, and the endless stream of sexual partners Joe encountered between young-adulthood and maturity.

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Now, a few might laugh, confused at the connection between fly fishing and sex addiction made in “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” regardless of having seen the film or not. Apart from the similar technical aspects of the two conveyed in the film, there is much more to discover depending on your vantage point. I find that the triviality, unthreatening, common humanity of fly fishing somewhat mocks the depravity and selfishness of a nymphomaniac. Nevertheless, the similarities and comparisons are intriguing to say the least.

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You’ve heard me deem Trier’s work and the man himself as controversial, and I doubt many of you will fight me on that. That being said, why “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is considered to be controversial and shocking is beyond me. I mean, if you’re a mid to late teen or older, you should know what sex is and how it is carried out. Younger than that and you shouldn’t even be witnessing this film. What’s shocking is the emotions, logic, morals, and inhumanity of a nymphomaniac on display here, not the sex being depicted uncensored. We see and experience sex all the time through advertisements, a lover, on TV, in film, and so on.

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There isn’t exactly a lot going on cinematically in “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” however keep in mind that this is entirely intentional. What I’m driving at is that this film is not meant to be overly complex, it’s not here to stun you visually, or twist your brain plot-wise. It’s a story about a woman’s life, her experiences, tribulations, and side effects with the condition known as nymphomania. That being said, there is a lot to explore here, such as the continuous demolishing of the fourth wall and an abundance of visceral poignancy. Trier utilizes cut-aways to a fascinating, almost non-relevant extent and dialogue that is handsomely soliloquy-esque. Trier manages to stuff an absurd amount of painful honesty, indecisive vulnerability, and disingenuous heartlessness into the film’s two-hour runtime, like a ballon teetering on popping, it’s quite stunning.

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By the time the tale is said and done, flashbacks and all, what’s current ends up taking a backseat to the recollection. As previously mentioned, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, the teller of the story, newcomer Stacy Martin tackles young Joe, a much more demanding role. Nevertheless, Gainsbourg’s take on a worn, lifeless piece of meat is hauntingly depressing. Never has a woman appeared so worthless, a true achievement Gainsbourg can toss on her resume. As for Martin, she’s completely naked for a good chunk of the film, a seemingly disadvantageous predicament from the start as the viewer can’t help but be pried away from her performance by the nudity. Surprisingly however, Martin manages to control the screen with a cold, cosmically ghastly set of eyes that scream with a vast emotional spectrum. Being an attractive young woman, Martin does a phenomenal job making sex unappealing.

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As for Stellan Skarsgard, well, you get what you pay for. A talented, captivating acting veteran who’s indifference and calmness is an excellent grounding agent to the obscenity throughout the film, a much needed facet. Shia LaBeouf, everyone’s favourite punching bag, gives it his all this go around. Maybe now the naysayers will see what a true talent this guy is. Put hatred aside, LaBeouf can act, there’s no way around it, and I’ve been saying it for a good long while. If he can just tighten up his act and reach a state of constant maturity, he’ll undoubtedly be a star in the long run and “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” will be an early calling card we’ll all look back on.

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While undoubtedly not for everyone, “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is a polarizing look at the terrifying world of sex addiction and no self-respect. It’ll earn its fair share of enemies, but you do have to admire the compassionate, unflinching, seductive power of Lars Von Trier’s latest expressionistic piece. It’s sure to grab comparisons to Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” which also explores sex addiction, but in a much more artistic manner. Granted, McQueen’s piece arguably trumps Trier’s in the extreme sense, but Trier’s film is, without question, much more difficult to stomach as a whole. Whether or not that’s a positive or negative is up to you…

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Nymphomaniac: Volume 1: 8 out of 10.