Trapped above Ice: Snowpiercer

SnowpiercerBy Richard Ostrum

One of the better things I took away from the past year was this curious, multi-cultural genre hybrid going by the slightly clunky moniker of Snowpiercer. The film, which claims its genesis in a 1980s born French illustrated novel, Le Transperceneige, charts the arduous journey from impoverishment to social and living-space improvement of a collection of rough-hewn types aboard an explicitly segregated super transport in a horrendously decrepit future world.

You see, the Snowpiercer of the title is a massive, sprawling train of immaculate durability powered by a perpetually energized engine that contains within it the last pieces of the population of a Mother Earth now cursed to an enveloping winterscape that leaves no more room for habitation.

The folks on the aforementioned journey from filthy rear caboose to the higher levels of comfort and resources toward the front are headed by a brooding, somewhat damaged gent by the name of Curtis Everett (fleshed out by Captain America himself, Chris Evans). Here is a deep-thinking fella with action hero tendencies who puts together a functional plan that leads his people to the option of escaping their lot with colorful level-by-level storyline advancement that tosses all manner of unexpected curves along their path.

As the film progresses toward an uncertain revelation, the group traverses through cars containing ever more perplexing clues as to what has become of this much- compromised remnant of humanity.

The world outside the train also becomes more prominent as the posse crosses into cars that actually have windows to view the fully arctic planet (the rear is shorn of any such exposure, only darkness pervades) and gain an appropriate perspective on the incredible fragility of this entire situation.

Snowpiercer2The power behind the unique charms and twisty set pieces that inform this worthy little picture comes chiefly care of the filmmaking skills of a man named Bong Joon-ho. Joon-ho is a South Korean reared director probably best known for the inventive monster-on-the-loose epic The Host. An international blockbuster that worked to give the slowly rising South Korean film industry a mammoth shot of recognition, The Host also revealed to the film culture as a whole the ability of Joon-ho to mesh differing cinematic styles and ideals into a great creature feature with depth in its character development and a strong new take on how the oft-employed beast-on-a- rampage scenario can be played out with much success.

Joon-ho would put together another effective feature following the global pay off of The Host, a more somber character study/murder mystery called Mother about one highly protective parent and how she combats homicide accusations leveled at her mentally flawed child. Another (mostly critical) hit for the filmmaker, Mother served as Bong Joon-ho’s parting cinematic gift to his homeland (thus far), it was time to take the big leap and try his hand at a bigger project to be crafted in the English language (predominantly). Thus leading to this Snowpiercer thing I’ve been going on about.

What Joon-ho brings to this latest attempt to realize a bleak, post-collapse fable is a serious dose of visual quirkiness and character tics that throw a bend into what could have (in more familiar, workman-like hands) been just another dirt and decay adorned tale of rag-tag survivalists pressing on against the apocalyptic odds.

He has also assembled a rather top end cast to fill out the many parts necessary to give weight and flavor to the piece overall. Fine examples of this include the ever fascinating Tilda Swinton as a fully cartoon-like upper-crust representative who serves to interact with the back-train lowlifes and help maintain order and balance (Swinton nailed it both in this film and Jim Jarmusch’s beautifully haunting vampire opus Only Lovers Left Alive along with bits in the latest Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam offerings, quite a banner year for this gal), Jamie Bell (that Billy Elliot lad all grown up), Ewan Bremner (the former Julien Donkey-Boy who learns first hand the severity of the outside climate), John Hurt in another of his countless wise sage roles (as someone named “Gilliam,” possibly a movie nerd in-joke) and both Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as father/daughter drug addicts who play a significant role in the conquering of the harder-to-penetrate upper levels of the train (the pair essayed a similar dad/kid match up in The Host) plus the esteemed Ed Harris makes a late in the game appearance to help wrangle the whole “destiny of all mankind” thing towards a fitting resolution.

Joon-ho maintains a strong measure of freshness in the material by giving these actors room to build their performances based on character specifics and nuances that work far better than just having them mechanically spit dialog out in order to simply springboard the next slotted-in action sequence. Speaking of the action, Snowpiercer does not skimp on it, just look to the odd and fully engaging moment when the band of disheveled bottom feeders finds themselves staring down a creepy army of hooded thugs brandishing much weaponry (including an axe that they dip into the bloody wound in a fish for maximum W.T.F. effect) that explodes into a hectic, full-blown riot only to pause to acknowledge a strange take on New Year’s before leaping back into all out carnage (this part of the film has been likened by many to a similarly designed hallway segment in the 2003 Korean classic Old Boy, seeing as how that film’s director Park Chan-wook is listed as a producer on this film, that should prove none too surprising).

Snowpiercer3Onward one can discover a bright and colorful classroom scene that shortly dissolves into lunacy involving a plucky, pregnant teacher and her brainwashed students along with, eventually, a whole lot of fresh eggs and firearms! Good, frenzied chaos to help boost the entire affair a few steps above, say, your everyday Jason Statham vehicle (those two Crank flicks being considerable exceptions, mind you).

Ultimately, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer stands as a stout reminder that, in fact, an original and intelligently crafted film can be sculpted out of even the most well worn of cinematic concepts. The film really could ‘a, would ‘a been a box office contender if not for the incoherent reasoning of the Weinstein Co’s, explaining away the film’s short scale theatrical distribution pattern. See the ‘steins posited that Snowpiercer would have connected more fully with mainstream film lovers if only it were tightened by roughly 20 minutes (the film currently clocks in at 126 minutes, not nearly as bloated as the mid-summer mass release Transformers: Age of Extinction, but never mind) and laden with over-explanatory narration to introduce key concepts.

Such as things are, Snowpiercer will just have to depend on the alternative viewing methods of Video on Demand and hard-copy rental/purchase releases. The Blu Ray version I snapped up (it’s also on DVD) contains the film with a scholarly film critic commentary (nobody actually involved with the film proper takes part, which is odd) and several interesting featurettes, including an animated representation of an abandoned, pre-apocalypse prologue and an hour-long documentary touching on the origin comic and its creators and how they reacted to the rebirth of their long- thought forgotten work as a big scale feature film.

Snowpiercer is available almost everywhere or can be found by way of a web trolling trip here;

One More Thing: Jodorowsky’s Dune
Here at long last is the closest any medium will ever come to capturing what might have been one of the more mind-frying visual experiences ever attempted. Back in the 1970s a right strange and creatively peerless individual by the name of Alejandro Jodorowsky who, riding high on his cult movie double whammy of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, two of the most fearless and audacious movies ever made, set his sights on adapting Frank Herbert’s greatly worshiped novel Dune into something more like a full-on sensory experience than an ordinary old Hollywood movie. The dream in mind was to craft an uber epic that would transform the ideal of science fiction cinema and raise the bar to an even loftier level than, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey (keep in mind, this was still in the age before Star Wars was born).

This much-needed documentary does the best it can to provide a decent outline to emphasize what could have been. The director, Frank Pavich, gives a greatly aged Jodorowsky ample chance to detail his once-upon-a-time passion project with really clear verbal recollection and the constant physical reference point of his thick, heavily elaborate production book full of sketches and notations.

The plan that was involved the assembling of a wild and eclectic crew of “spiritual warriors” before and behind the camera. Said crew was to include, get this: David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Wells and Salvador Dalí as members of the cast and H.R. Giger, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and Dan (‘Return of the Living Dead) O’ Bannon as instruments to visualize the increasingly ambitious script (written by Jodorowsky, without ever bothering to read the novel) plus Pink Floyd would be tapped to help with the score. A heady undertaking to be sure with the expected conflict of interest from the big dollar players who balked as the budget predictably ballooned, and it was clear this crazy visionary director had no intention of ever delivering a safe little two-hour film (he was aiming for something more along the lines of 15 hours, give or take).

It’s pretty clear throughout the course of Jodorowsky’s Dune that this whole, incredibly overreaching project was something doomed to inevitable evaporation at some point and, as the overwhelming air of impossibility grew thicker, it became clear the incredible pipe dream would remain nothing more than just that. Still, this welcome film does the whole mad thing a great service and works to give the mythic movie that never was a metaphoric second shot at life.

Jodorowsky himself would shrug off the depressing residue of this failure (which would later be reborn as a really muddled David Lynch film and later still a couple instantly shrugged off T.V. mini-series) and go on to make several other solid films including Santa Sangre and the very recent, semi-biographic The Dance of Reality, made while he was well into his 80s.

Seek it here:

Ok, good way to start this 2015. On to the next month.

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