REVIEW: “Snowpiercer”

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Every revolution has a cost and the cost is high in Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi action flick “Snowpiercer”. This is the Korean filmmaker’s first feature since “Mother” from 2009. “Mother” was my first exposure to Bong Joon-ho and my christening of sorts into the art of Korean cinema. “Snowpiercer” is a much different film yet it doesn’t stray too far away from the style and approach which lies at the heart of this auteur.

Despite the efforts of blowhard extraordinaire Harvey Weinstein, “Snowpiercer” has finally made its way to the United States. Weinstein acquired the North American rights for the film with a wide release planned. But the pompous film mogul demanded that 20 minutes of footage be cut and when Joon-ho rightly refused, Weinstein sabotaged the movie by delaying it for almost a year and severely restricting its release. But word of mouth and positive reviews eventually earned it a broader release although nothing like what was originally planned.

The story is taken from a 1982 French graphic novel and as with any good science fiction, the premise is everything. To stonewall the effects of global warming mankind injects the atmosphere with an experimental agent that instead brings on a second ice age. Humanity’s last inhabitants live within the Snowpiercer, an enormous train in constant motion powered by the “eternal engine”. Onboard the train a social order has been created. The affluent upperclass live in the lavish head section while the poor and needy inhabit the tail. Now at first the movie appeared to be a climate change and class warfare lecture, but once we begin to meet the blend of interesting and eccentric characters, we realize there is more under the hood.

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After several failed attempts the tail section puts together another revolt against the privileged and the armed soldiers who defend them. Curtis (Chris Evans) is quickly established as the strongest link and the man many look to for leadership. His mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) is grooming him to be the leader once they are able to take over the train. Curtis is a complex character. He often shows heart particularly in his dealings with his fellow tail-sectioners. Evans continues to grow as an actor. He’s mostly been known for playing goofballs or superheroes but I love seeing him open himself up as an actor. He once again flexes his action star muscle, but it’s nice to see him digging deeper into a character and doing it well.

Evans is helped out by an incredible supporting cast. Jamie Bell is good as a character who starts out as a standard sidekick but evolves into something more. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays a mother determined to get her son back after he is taken by the upperclass authority. A Joon-ho favorite Song Kang-ho plays the drug addicted designer of the train’s many doors separating the cars. The fabulously quirky Alison Pill is great as a character simply titled Teacher, and the always exceptional Ed Harris pops up in a significant role. But the true scene stealer has to be Tilda Swinton. She plays Minister Mason, an overseer of sorts who is really a glorified lacky. Swinton has a ball playing such a wacky and neurotic character. Everything from her appearance to her ways of expressing herself works to inject a bit of humor while never derailing the movie’s more prominent tone.

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All of these characters work to energize Joon-ho’s engaging story. To be honest it’s hard to deny the absurdity of it all, and a surface reading would make this sound like a pretty standard action romp. But when the story is this well told and it moves at such a fluid and dynamic pace, it’s so easy to get completely caught up in it. I had a blast with its central conceit and the stylized storytelling. The careful mix of action and character development is well done and the setting is superb. It ranges from beautiful and colorful to dark and dirty while always maintaining a sense of claustrophobia. And as with almost every other sci-fi film, we get plenty of commentary here. Joon-ho paints a parallel portrait of the modern societal standard which is sometimes effective and other times ham-fisted. His climate change theme was the most compelling showing an awareness while also showing the dangers of overreacting. His class warfare approach is a little more uneven. But other themes such as drug abuse, political power, and revolutions are laced throughout the story in intriguing ways.

“Snowpiercer” also looks amazing from its wide assortment of environments within the train to its ice-ravaged world outside. The variety of action we get is also a treat. It may be intense close quarters shootouts or hand-to-hand combat in precarious situations. Some of it dances close to the edge of brutality, but so often Joon-ho pulls back his camera just as the violence is happening sparing the audience from the gore while keeping the sheer intensity of the scene. It’s a mark of the creative Korean style and it gives the movie a particular look that I absolutely loved. It’s a visual delight.

Thanks to Weinstein “Snowpiercer” hasn’t gotten the release it deserves but word of mouth is spreading. Let me happily add to its positive press. This is a fantastic science fiction picture that sounds similar to many other films yet feels completely unique and fresh. It’s a film with many strengths and as a lover of good sci-fi, I had an absolute blast with it!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN” – 3 1/2 STARS

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s “The Adventures of Tintin” has been in the works for close to 30 years. Spielberg first purchased the rights in 1983 butĀ the main filming didn’t actually begin until 2009. Jackson produced and Spielberg directed this animated motion capture film based on the immensely popular comic book series from Belgian artist Herge.Ā While the TintinĀ character is most popular in Europe, Spielberg and Jackson hope the broader exposure will result in a least two more films. There’s certainly nothing in “The Adventures of Tintin” thatĀ should discourage a sequel. But there’s also several things in the film that keep it from being as good as it could have been.

In many ways “The Adventures of Tintin” is an old-fashionedĀ adventure with a shiny modern coat of paint.Ā It’s a classic style, simple and straightforward adventure yarn that at times feels like an IndianaĀ Jones treasure hunt picture. But it’s the cutting-edge motion capture and CGI animation that instantly catches your eye. TheĀ character’s gorgeousĀ three-dimensional renderings are incredibly realistic but with just a touch of cartoony style. The animation alsoĀ features an incredible level of detail. It’s seenĀ in everything from theĀ variousĀ around-the-world locationsĀ to the fantastic period recreation.Ā “Tintin” is a visual treat and there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy the steady barrage of eye candy found throughout the film.

I mentioned thatĀ “Tintin” is simple and straightforward and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I did have a few issues with the story. The movie starts with TintinĀ purchasing a model ship from a vender at an outdoor market. There is practically no introduction whatsoever and it seems like the movie expects you to already be familiar with the character. As someone unfamiliar with Tintin, all IĀ learnedĀ is that he’sĀ a journalist and adventurer and his best friendĀ is his white dog Snowy. After buying the shipĀ TintinĀ is immediately approached by two individuals who try to takeĀ it off of his hands. This leads to the discovery thatĀ the model ship may hold a clue to the whereabouts of a lost treasure. UponĀ seeing this, TintinĀ and Snowy head off on a globe-trotting adventure to find the treasure before a shady character named Sakharine does.

From there the movie launches into a frantic andĀ almost hyperactive action romp. TheĀ film seems to move fromĀ one elaborate cinematicĀ set piece to another, each filled with that signature well-choreographed SpielbergianĀ action. There’s also just enough story to keep everything interesting. But I did feel the movie start to lag in the middle especially during a long series of flashback scenes intendedĀ to tell the history behind the treasure and it’s connection to two of the characters. Speaking of characters, TintinĀ teams up with Captain Haddock, a drunk who loses control of his ship to Sakharine. While Haddock has a few funny moments he’s also borderline annoying at times especially when he goes off on one of his ramblings. There are also a couple of instances where his attempts at humor seem to clash with the tone of the movie. While the movie hits a few speed bumps in the middle, it quickly picks back up on its way to a wide open ending that clearly points to a sequel.

Overall “The Adventures of Tintin” is a fun time that the entire family can enjoy together. From the start, the movie jumps right into the adventure but don’t expect much of an introduction to TintinĀ or even any character development to speak of. And while the story is about as basic as you can get, it really only stumbles in a few places. But it’s the movie’s presentation that is the most impressive. The film looks amazing and features some of the most eye-popping CGI and visually stunning action sequences. The John Williams scoreĀ doesn’t hurt either. When it comes down to it, “The Adventures of Tintin” is likeĀ several of Spielberg’s other pictures – light on story but heavy on appearance.Ā It’s not a perfect movie but there is still plenty to latch onto and once you get onboard it’s easy to stay with it all the way.