Tag Archives: Chris Evans

Is Snowpiercer the Best Action Movie of the Year?

There has been hum of anticipation preceding the U.S. release of Snowpiercer Joon-ho Bong’s first (mostly) English language film that, ironically, found distribution abroad before finally being released in the good old US of A. Harvey Weinstein apparently wanted to cut something like 20 minutes out of the film for us stupid Americans. Too much talky-talky, I suppose. Reports say the edited version tested poorly and, voila, we here in the Land of the Free get to see what the rest of the world saw.

Chris Evans isn't Captain American anymore.

Chris Evans isn’t Captain American anymore.

I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Weinstein wanted to cut. There are extended scenes of dialogue where Chris Evans or John Hurt or Tilda Swinton go on about order or revolution, but none of it struck me as unnecessarily dense or confused. In fact the entire premise is almost absurdly simple, its points obvious, its metaphors almost labored. Still, while Snowpiercer isn’t as strong as some of Mr. Bong’s past efforts (Memories of Murder and Mother immediately come to mind), he manages to overcome the scripts shortcomings and spins a compelling and entertaining post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure story.

We are some 18 years after the world’s end. In an effort to curb global warming, the nations of the world banded together and dispersed a chemical into the atmosphere that would have, they thought, cooled temperatures enough the maintain our polar ice caps and salvage beach front property values around the world. But the chemical worked too well and froze everything and everyone. Earth is now a giant block of ice. Whoops.

That's one way to fix global warming.

That’s one way to fix global warming.

The only survivors (that we know of) are packed on a giant, high-speed train that circles the globe, built by a billionaire, the mysterious and never seen Wilford, who always dreamed of living on a train. Well, the world froze and those holding tickets didn’t have a choice about where they could live. Here’s your compartment, welcome to the rest of your life.

While everything is more or less cozy for the first class passengers, those who elbowed their ways on without tickets are confined to the rear of the train, in the grimy filth and dark decay of poverty and repression. They are rationed blocks of gelatinous protein bars, but otherwise are left to their own devices in the rear of the train.

You'll find John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans among those in the back of the train.

You’ll find John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans among those in the back of the train.

After 18 years of scraping and exploitation, after 18 years of watching armed guards take away their children for who knows what ends, they decide to fight back, to band together and move forward. Using the security expert who designed the train’s system (Kang-ho Song), they override the barriers and slowly move forward, car by car, discovering more about the world they’ve been barred from than they ever wanted to know.

A new world that hasn't run out of soap.

A new world that hasn’t run out of soap.

As entertaining as the movie is, we can’t ignore the fact that Bong is making a serious point about the responsibility of power and the senselessness of exploitation. Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason, the henchwoman for Wilford, tells them they all have a preordained place and they must know and keep that place, the same words used by those at the top of all exploitative systems since the dawn of time. Feudalism, slavery, unregulated capitalism all rely on extracting as much value from those below us without regard to their well being. And while there is a long scene at the end of the film in which we are almost convinced that this is the way things need to be, we are reminded that exploitation, while profitable for a while, is not sustainable. Those being stomped on will stop being grateful just for being saved and being alive; they want the opportunity to live well like everyone else.

There’s nothing terribly subtle about the way Bong explores these issues. Not that subtlety has much of a place in a picture like Snowpiercer. Absurdity and horror go hand in hand on this train. As ferocious as Mason is, Swinton laces her performance with a gleeful gusto and gets the movie’s biggest laughs. She’s something like a demonic mixture of Margaret Thatcher, Nurse Ratchet, and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. If you see this movie for no other reason, see it for Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

Swinton’s performance is part of Bong’s acknowledgement of the absurdity of not only the premise of the movie (the perpetual motion engine of the train and its closed ecosystem would likely wither under careful scientific scrutiny), but the way we hold constructed social structures as sacrosanct. Just as nobles told serfs that God put them where they were and they should keep their place, Minister Mason tells the passengers in the back of the train the same. Much as factory owners said (and continue to say) working hard will be rewarded (when and with what they usually fail to specify), Snowpiercer’s third class passengers are told just the fact that Wilford allows them to continue living is their reward.

But life isn’t enough. Social structures that demand repression are dangerously shortsighted. There is nothing sacred about any social structure: they can be upended and, if things are bad enough, they usually are violently disturbed. Just have a chat with Louis XVI about that. And these violent uprisings threaten not just those sitting comfortably at the top, but everyone. If we want a functioning, healthy society, we have to include all voices, give everyone opportunities to flourish (rather than just live), and, above all, we need to respect one another.

Snowpiercer7

Snowpiercer takes on these issues less elegantly than I would have liked, nearly battering us with its point, but it’s still far preferable to most of the action/adventure films out there. It also lacks any major surprises. I’m not talking about twists, but the entire trajectory of the movie essentially followed the path I assumed it would take. There was nothing there that I didn’t expect to see in some form with, that is, the exception of Tilda Swinton’s performance.

But these reservations shouldn’t hold anyone back from seeing Snowpiercer. When the movie ended I thought, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t need to see it again.” But as the days have passed I have been tempted to rewatch it, remembering moments I want to re-experience, like Alison Pill’s demented schoolteacher. It’s certainly one of the more memorable movies you’ll see this year. The anticipation has not been squandered.

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“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power.” – Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans is Captain America

I’m glad the filmmakers of the recent spate of Marvel Comic films have opted to go with lesser known actors to play their hero, like Chris Hemsworth as Thor. I’m sure the producers of these films understood that they  wouldn’t have to pay them as much as bona fide movie stars, but in the process they have actually cast the right people for the parts, rather than the people they think will fill seats. Chris Evans exhibits a determined sincerity with his performance as Steve Rogers, the initially lanky weakling who would have been a great model as the wimp getting sand kicked in his face by the bully in those old Charles Atlas ads. Through non-specific scientific tinkering, Steve is transformed into the muscle-bound Captain America. With his fresh off the assembly line bod, Steve proves to himself and the world that America is now here to kick ass.

Comic book mythologies tend to reflect contemporary ideals and anxieties, so it is fitting that Marvel introduced the patriotic protector in the early years of the Second World War. Captain America confirmed the primacy of American morals and strength at a time when nothing in the rest of the world was all that certain. Steve Rogers was a symbol of what Americans hoped their country could be. And, for that matter, the rest of the world as well.

It is less clear how a flag-waving U.S. superhero will be embraced in this day and age. It was probably smart to keep the action in Rogers’ early days before the reputation of the U.S. would be tarnished by a long list of imperialist interventions and covert CIA actions. It was a time when one could be idealistic about the U.S. without sympathetic smiles and pats on the hand from people who assume we’re patriotic because we just don’t know any better. It was the last era of certainty.

Skinny but scrappy Steve Rogers before the transformation

We see his futile efforts to join the military in the early years of the war despite a richly deserved 4-F status for being dramatically underweight, asthmatic, and having several other ailments that would have deterred the most patriotic young men. Better to collect scrap metal and grow victory gardens than drop dead of an asthma attack in the South Pacific. But Steve isn’t deterred; he wants to do his part.

His persistency pays off when he is spotted by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine recognizes a perfect candidate in Rogers and invites him to take part in an experimental program that will potentially grow the subject, not just physically, but intellectually and morally as well. It is, therefore, crucial that he find a candidate that also has a well-developed sense of ethics, as those will be accentuated as well. It isn’t the strongest man he was looking for, but the man with a finely tuned sense of morality and justice.

Unfortunately bodies like this don't come as easy as it did for Steve

Of course Rogers participates and is transformed into a beefy Adonis despite the early skepticism of the officer in charge of the program, Col. Chester Phillips. Tommy Lee Jones waltzes through the gruff, sarcastic, dry part with ease, but he brings a nice comedic touch to a film that is otherwise fairly serious. (Though I do love the back story of the costume coming from Steve’s stint as a war bonds salesman and movie star before becoming a legitimate hero.)

No superhero would be complete without an equally (or almost equally) powerful nemesis. Hugo Weaving is Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull, a man so truly villainous that even the Nazis have to disavow him. Schmidt was an early recipient of Erskine’s serum before Erskine fled Nazi Germany, but Erskine had not worked out the kinks and Schmidt’s face was deformed into a devilish monstrosity. The serum also accentuated Schmidt’s evil nature and now Schmidt, having used the scientific resources of the Nazis, is bent on destroying the capitals of the world’s major nations, including Berlin. He hopes to usher in a new age of superhuman domination. (Did he meet up with Magneto at some point?)

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt

The movie is solid as an action picture but don’t let your brain linger too long on certain things or the historical inconsistencies and holes will be groan worthy. I know we like to pretend we’re not racist anymore, but that doesn’t mean we should gloss over the racial injustices of the past. Seeing black soldiers serving alongside white soldiers might look OK to modern eyes, but the U.S. armed forces weren’t desegregated until after the war. That is one of those unnecessary (and well intentioned) errors that drive me crazy.

Even worse is the unexplained presence of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British intelligence agent (I think) who somehow has oodles of authority and rushes out into battle. I would have been willing to forgive all that if some time had been taken to develop her character, but she ends up just being the pretty face for Steve to fall in love with (though she isn’t a blatant set piece like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Their romance is remarkably tepid and uninspired.

Romance proves to be the weak spot of "Captain America": Hayley Atwell with Evans

Captain America ranks as a stronger superhero movie despite some of these flaws and suffering from a blatant case of sequelitis. It still manages to make the story compelling even though we know that this is all a set-up for the massive Avengers movie filming now and set to be released next year. We saw the beginning of the set up in Iron Man 2 with Tony Stark finding Captain America’s shield among his father’s possessions and the FBI agent being called away to New Mexico (for what we now know will be his meeting with Thor). The Avengers will bring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and other superheroes together for a big $150 million dollar star-studded extravaganza.

If The Avengers manages to be at least as good as most of the movies that have led up to it (with the notable exception of the wretchedly meandering Iron Man 2), then it should be a movie worth seeing. But balancing action with personal dramas and character development has what has made Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America worth watching. Juggling all these characters along with several others (like Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk) appears daunting and could turn out to be a massive disaster. In the meantime, though, we have Captain America to fill our summer action needs. (Rating ***1/2)

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