I’m late to the cult of Snowpiercer, which had a brief appearance in theaters three years ago, but has had a much longer life in online chat rooms. It’s not hard to see why. Like The Matrix and The Hunger Games, movies with which it shares both aesthetic and thematic qualities, Snowpiercer asks Big Questions while serving up stylish and riveting action. The plot is more metaphor than actual story: in the near future, efforts to halt global warming have plunged the world into a deep freeze. All life is extinct, save the passengers on super train that circles the globe once a year. Like the world of the Hunger Games, society is divided between the haves, who live in decadent luxury at the front of the train; and the have-nots, the grimy rabble packed into the rear of the train, subsisting on a diet of protein Jello. The absurdity of the situation is more or less addressed as the movie unfolds and a band of rebels, led by the reluctant, brooding Curtis Everett (surprisingly effective in a non-Captain America role), battles their way car-by-car to the front of the train to seek retribution, or at least redistribution. Despite these narrow confines of story and setting, Snowpiercer succeeds through the vivid, crisp direction of Korea’s Bong Joon Ho, and has enough wrinkles to keep it interesting. The movie’s climax, a confrontation between Everett and the elegant Ed Harris as the train’s creator and engineer, does lurch into some tedious philosophical territory but that’s a failure only of Snowpiercer‘s ambition. The strong cast also features Tilda Swinton as a bizarrely accented enforcer of the social order, and John Hurt as a decrepit Obi Wan Kenobi guiding the rebellion.
The Martian is the rare movie that’s better than the book. In this case, it’s mostly because the book is so mediocre and the film makers (it was directed by Ridley Scott) manage to solve the problems its writer, Andy Weir, could not. The story is a simple one: Astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left for dead on Mars, and he needs to stay alive for more than a year until he can be rescued. The book does a great job of explaining how this could happen, and patiently walks us through Watney’s forays into Martian agriculture and transportation. Told mostly through his journal updates, Watney narrates his ordeal with humor and a breezy, can-do attitude. But the book lacks any attempt to convey the inner life of a man stuck millions of miles from home. He never despairs, he never pines for missing friends or lovers (and apparently doesn’t have any), he’s never angry at the hand fate dealt him, and so never becomes more than a glib sketch of a person. And this is where the movie succeeds. In only a few brief scenes, perhaps less than a minute of total screen time, Damon flashes the emotions of a man who has every reason to rage against his predicament, and becomes someone we can understand. The movie also smartly introduces the rest of the cast – Watney’s fellow astronauts and the NASA ground crew – much earlier than the book, which abruptly lurched from a Robinson Crusoe-like narrative to a rescue mission with lots of characters. As a result, some scenes of Watney’s travails are cut and new ones, featuring Jessica Chastain as the spaceship’s commander, are added. Those alterations are mostly positive (save for an unnecessary coda set back on earth) and help the movie build momentum on Earth, in space and on Mars towards a satisfying and moving climax. Much like Apollo 13, the movie celebrates the resourcefulness of NASA’s engineers and feels overly promotional (I’m sure the real-life NASA administrators loved it). Given the billions of dollars spent to save one astronaut, I would have liked to hear from an ethicist arguing whether the money could be better spent on a malaria vaccine, say, that could save millions of lives. But The Martian isn’t that kind of film. It’s a rousing adventure that reminds us how, in capable hands, effective a story-telling medium movies can be.
We rented these movies this week, and they have a lot in common. Both are based on old stories (one somewhat older than the other) that didn’t particularly need to be made into movies. And while neither film is very good, at least one is interesting.
Noah, from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), is wild, feverish mess. It imagines the story of the flood not as a gauzy allegory, but as a vivid, painful ordeal. Noah is the descendent of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, just 10 generations removed from Eden, and the world as filmed by Aronofsky looks about 300 years old: raw and strange. Angels still walk the earth, but they are encased in rock, a punishment from the vengeful Creator (You Know Who). The Creator also visits the dreams of Noah (Russell Crowe), who foresees the drowning of humanity, most of whom are the wicked descendents of the original Bad Man, Cain. Noah and his sons get to building the ark, and on the eve of the deluge, animals start showing up. Aronofsky skips the two-by-two procession of beasts that is the staple of children’s books, and in a few arresting sequences, shows thousands of critters slithering and shoving their way aboard. It’s when the men – led by their very evil king, Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) – try to get on the boat does the action movie break out, and lots of smashing and explosions ensue. Crowe doesn’t exactly look like a semitic hero, but he broods furiously, particularly when he’s torn between his understanding of the Creator’s intent – that all men must die, his family included – and an unwillingness to sacrifice what he loves. Unfortunately, Aronofsky, or the studio heads, doesn’t think theological questioning is dramatic enough, so we get a distracting subplot about Tubal Cain tempting Noah’s son, and a predictable fight in the bowels of the ark. Along the way there’s lots of stilted dialogue, some impassioned urging from Noah’s wife (the strangely cast Jennifer Connelly) and a bland, passive performance from Emma Watson, the wife of Noah’s son upon whose pregnancy the fate of humanity rests. Hermione Granger never had days like these.
Noah is inconsistent and often clumsy, but at least Aronofsky has a vision. It’s hard to tell what Peter Jackson’s vision was for The Hobbit, aside from the most cynical. The movie picks up where the last one left off, with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf aiding a troop of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom (and not coincidentally, the mountain of treasure left behind). While the second installment is somewhat brisker than the sluggish first, it suffers the same fatal flaws of bloat and lack of character development. We simply don’t have a reason to care about these people (if hobbit and dwarves are people) or their mission. Few of the dwarves ever develop a personality beyond caricature, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has no discernible motivation and as other characters – elves, humans, orcs, were-bears – parachute in, the plot is stretched thinner and thinner. J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book is a slight, diverting adventure, with none of the weight of his later Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s attempts to invest this story with significance fall flat and worse, undermine the power of his magnificent Rings trilogy. Anyone who watches all the movies in chronological order would be baffled by Gandalf’s slow realization that Sauron had returned in The Fellowship of the Ring, since he’d already confronted him two movies earlier in The Desolation of Smaug. The movie also suffers from the same action-movie affliction as Noah, with an extended sequence of dwarves in barrels rushing down a river seemingly designed with a theme-park ride in mind. It’s not all tedious – there are some well crafted sequences in the lair of Smaug the dragon – and Jackson again uses the New Zealand scenery to maximum effect. But when your mountains are more captivating than your characters, you have a problem.
The history of recent mountaineering movies is pretty dismal, and most involve overlaying the plot of a lame thriller over a climbing backdrop. (See: Vertical Limit, Cliffhanger). Those movies didn’t have faith that the inherent drama in climbing big mountains could sustain a plot. Not so Everest, a new film based on the 1996 disaster that saw eight climbers die in a tangle of greed, poor planning, miscommunication and horrible weather. The catastrophe was well documented, in part because one climber, writer Jon Krakauer, turned it into a best selling book, Into Thin Air. Other books and accounts followed. The events are compelling enough they don’t need embellishment, and as far as I can tell (based on my reading of Krakauer’s book 18 years ago), there isn’t any. The movie, directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormakur, does streamline the action, focusing on New Zealand guide Rob Hall and his clients, and leaved out some of the other climbing teams that played a role in the disaster. Kormakur revels in the mountain setting, and his camera swoops in and out of the Himalaya, showing the massive size of Everest, and the scale of the challenge. One sequence involving a helicopter rescue at 20,000 feet is heart stopping. He’s also faithful to the sport. As a (very) amateur climber who has tackled some big peaks, I was ready (eager almost) to pick apart the inaccuracies, but there weren’t many (the self-arrest technique of one guide needed work). He also captures the pain and difficulty of operating in a high-altitude environment, and how it debilitates even the most accomplished mountaineer. Kormakur’s bigger challenge is crafting the individual narratives of the characters, most of which are vague sketches. He delves into the back story of one climber, Beck Weathers (played by Josh Brolin) a brash Texan, but he rarely rises above a stereotype. The heart of the movie, and its one fully realized personality, is Hall (Jason Clarke), whose compassion proves to be his greatest flaw. Hall’s narrative – including his poignant conversation from the top of Everest with his pregnant wife (Keira Knightly) at home – is so well known that for many viewers, there’s little suspense. It’s nonetheless a powerful story, more so because it’s true, and even if you know what’s coming, the film’s climax is surprisingly affecting.
I haven’t seen every Martin Scorsese movie, but I’ve seen most and “Shutter Island” is easily the worst. Whatever the flaws of “Bringing Out The Dead” or “The Age of Innocence,” they weren’t boring and I never regretted watching them. Not so with “Shutter Island,” an exercise in lurid tedium. The movie starts out promisingly, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a harried federal marshal in the 1950s investigating a missing inmate at a mental institution on an island in Boston Harbor. Things go awry as DiCaprio quickly descends into typical horror movie territory: sinister scientists, driving rain, flashing lightning, now way to escape the island etc. Scorsese clearly has fun paying homage to the genre, and there are a few scenes that thrill. But rather than taking us on a brisk ride, he buries us in convoluted twists and turns, adding layers of exposition before finally delivering a twist so predictable it was telegraphed an hour earlier (particularly to anyone who saw A Beautiful Mind). DiCaprio does his best but seems wrong for the part – he’s too boyish and good looking to play a man at the end of his rope – and Mark Ruffalo again plays a federal agent who is not quite what he seems. A contrarian view might be that Scorsese was fully aware what he was doing, and he ladled on the melodrama with intent, perhaps as a misguided tribute to some B-movie from his youth. In either scenario it failed, utterly.
“Captain Phillips” was both less and more than what I expected.
The story, based on real events, is simple: Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) is the captain of a freighter crossing hazardous seas. His ship is boarded by a band of four Somali pirates, he is held hostage on a lifeboat and eventually rescued by the U.S. Navy.
The spareness of the plot lends itself to a lean, stripped down movie. This is what I mean by less. The camera almost never leaves Hanks – the one main exception is scenes that establish the pirates and their motivations – and Captain Phillips is a taciturn man. There are no soaring speeches, no long exchanges between characters. The dialogue is clipped and blunt, and the action scenes are jolting. The one time we see Phillips as anything more than a ship’s captain – the opening scene where he heads to the Burlington, Vermont, airport – he and his wife are filmed from behind and their conversation centers on their worries about their son’s future. The tone is set: worry and anxiety permeate this movie.
The more is Hanks’s performance. Grey-bearded and grim, he occupies the center of the movie without dominating it. For me, the mark of a successful performance from a famous actor is when I forget I’m watching a famous actor, and that’s rare. Star vehicles like “Captain Phillips” often seem produced to fetch awards, and the movie wants you to pay attention to the amazing acting. In “Gravity,” for instance, I never forgot I was watching Sandra Bullock. Not here. The economic script, and Hanks’s muted performance, allows him to disappear into his role of a man pushed to his limits.
Captain Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass, who made two of the Bourne movies, and it’s a good marriage between a director who eschews frills and a story that offers few. There are no real heroes here. Phillips survives his ordeal with some quick thinking – but he’s rescued by the overwhelming firepower of the U.S. Navy, and it’s clear they’re only there to save the White House from the embarrassment of an American kidnapped in Somalia.
Unlike “Black Hawk Down” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” movies with which it shares a milieu and worldview, “Captain Phillips” largely ignores the geopolitical events that set the stage. The film has sympathy for the Somalians driven to piracy, but has little time to dwell on their plight. Its focus is entirely on the struggle off the Horn of Africa, and the last hour feels like the end game of a chess match, with the few remaining pieces on the board desperately staving off the final checkmate.
The tricky thing about writing reviews for movies built on surprises and twists is describing the movie without giving away the plot. You don’t want to spoil the reader’s fun. But when it comes to an utter failure like “Now You See Me,” I have no such qualms. The twist at the end doesn’t make you rethink everything you just saw, it makes you rethink your decision to waste two hours watching it. The premise is this: a team of four magicians, pick pockets and hypnotists are recruited to form a super team of performers, who use lavish shows in Vegas and New Orleans to rob banks and billionaires and give the money to their audiences in outlandishly public ways. This attracts the attention of the FBI, and Agent Rhodes, played with gruff exasperation by Mark Ruffalo, gives chase, accompanied by a (surprise!) beautiful French agent assigned by Interpol (because the magicians robbed a French bank). The true motives of the Four Horsemen (as the team is called) are not known, nor do we know the identity of their benefactor. Various suspects are supplied, including a former magician-turned-debunker Morgan Freeman. As the stunts become more elaborate and the chase scenes more frenzied and desperate, the tension builds and the movie blows up like a balloon, promising a big reveal. But instead of achieving lift off, or even popping in some novel way, it leaks away like a sad flatulence. The mastermind behind the heists was Ruffalo’s FBI agent, who all along, for reasons unexplained, gave the appearance of trying to catch the crooks while bankrolling them. His motive? Some vague revenge for the death of his magician father (How the son of a famous magician gets assigned the FBI’s first magician-bank robbery case without anyone noticing is only one of the dozens of holes and flaws in the movie). The Four Horsemen, who never progress past their snappy banter into real people, achieve some sort of magician Nirvana and ride away on a mystical carousel (really). The movie ends, insipidly, with Ruffalo and the French agent declaring their love on the Pont Des Arts (the bridge with the cheesy locks) in Paris. But the movie’s biggest problem isn’t the improbable twist that Ruffalo was pulling the strings – in the hands of a gifted director, it could have been sold. (Think of Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” as a template for how to make this sort of movie work). It’s that “Now You See Me” makes no attempt to sell it. Instead of rewinding the camera to show the clues we missed, we get a halfhearted shrug, as if it couldn’t be bothered to try. It’s like a botched magic trick: a lot of razzle dazzle before the magicians flubs the finale.
We rented this documentary based on the enthusiastic reviews I remembered reading when it came out. I’m a sports fan, but I’ve never been particularly interested in auto racing or Formula 1, and my knowledge of Aryton Senna – the three-time world champion who died in a 1994 crash – was pretty rudimentary. I can confidently say I now know much more about Senna than I did, although I’m not sure the film was otherwise very fulfilling. It’s never boring, but it also never escapes the sports documentary genre in the way that made “Hoop Dreams” or “When We Were Kings” so compelling. “Senna” is told in straight chronological order with no narrator, using tons of racing and interview footage from Senna’s brief, meteoric career. Born to a wealthy Brazilian family, Senna was a phenomenon, racing and winning from a young age with spectacular style. The film is its most riveting as he tears around the tracks in Monte Carlo, Tokyo and Interlagos, Brazil, often from the vantage of a camera perched above his shoulder. As he advanced up the Formula 1 pecking order, Senna won an army of fans and made high-profile enemies, which snarled him in various dramas that played out on video. He was also handsome, charming and articulate in English, which helps the film’s cause of presenting Senna as the sympathetic victim of the corrupt world of auto racing. Cast as the villains are his chief rival, the canny Frenchman, Alain Prost, and the cynical head of the racing association, Jean-Marie Balestre, also a Frenchman, who appear to conspire to confound the brash Senna. We never hear from Prost or Balestre outside the contemporary footage, and this one-sided narrative is the film’s greatest weakness. We gets hints that Senna’s aggressive style meant he was not universally beloved by other drivers, mostly seen in a testy interview with former champion Jackie Stewart, but it’s not enough to dull the hagiographic shine. The film ends with long shots of Senna’s funeral, and interviews with weepy fans, one of which who said with Senna’s death, there would be “no joy” in Brazil. The movie forgets to mention Brazil’s soccer team won the World Cup that year.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” crosses Discovery-channel type documentary with philosophizing art house cinema. While not as gripping as his earlier “Grizzly Man,” it is similarly a canvas for German filmmaker and eccentric Werner Herzog’s ruminations about life and death, man and nature. Here, he is given rare access to film the Chauvet cave in France, rediscovered in 1994 after being completely sealed off by a landslide for 30,000 years. The natural formations of the cavern are spectacular but the real star is the paintings of prehistoric mammals, rendered with amazing vitality and sophistication. Long sections of the movie are devoted to simply filming the art in changing light. Herzog doesn’t dwell on the motivations of the painters, declaring them unknowable, and instead focuses on the abyss of time between us and them. In one section of the cave, carbon dating reveals two similar paintings were completed almost 5,000 years apart, a seeming instant for the artists but an incomprehensible gulf for us. The movie was filmed in 3D, to better capture the art on the cave’s undulations and ridges, and while it still worked in the conventional 2D, I wish I had seen it in its intended format. Herzog closes with an odd, whimsical coda about mutant albino crocodiles invading the cave, which didn’t make much sense but reminds us the film isn’t journalism but a personal vision, and he’s showing us the world as he sees it.
As a longtime collector of comic books, I’m pre-disposed to like super hero movies. This one was a challenge. A retelling of Superman’s origin from Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), Man of Steel is big, bulky and disjointed, with key points of the story told through distracting flashbacks. A long opening chunk of the movie is set on Krypton, where Superman’s father Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) has been re-imagined as an action hero, flying a winged beast through a collapsing city and battling the evil General Zod over the future of their dying race. In this telling, young Kal-El becomes a symbol of Jor-El’s hope for the species, and Zod vows to hunt him down. If you accept superhero stories are a form of American mythology, there should be room for new interpretations and you can’t get too hung up on any one version being correct. The problem with this approach, though, is that Jor-El never recedes into the background (he reappears after his death as a sort of helpful ghost who engineers plot points) and Superman becomes a pawn in his own story. Structurally, the plot – which ties Superman’s origin to the climactic battle with Zod – obscures the development of much else we associate with the Superman, so we never see Clark Kent at the Daily Planet, his youth is told in flashbacks, and Lois Lane (played with style by Amy Adams) is crammed awkwardly into the narrative. The movie is all first and third acts. Man of Steel also suffers from a gloom that feels borrowed from the last Star Trek movie, and particularly, the Dark Knight trilogy. In the comics, there’s the idea that Gotham City is New York south of 14th St., and Metropolis is the city north of 14th. That tonal difference should be reflected in the characters and their stories. Here, the clouds rarely part and when Superman plays earnest and sincere – asking a skeptical humanity to trust him – he comes across as a naive simpleton.